Credit: Illustration by Sara Schwartz

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.


The Girl Scouts of the USA marks its 100th anniversary today, and it would be easy for the organization to get caught up in the past. Yet rather than resting on its laurels, the Girl Scouts has placed itself on the cutting edge of a nationwide crisis.

Most of us have heard about the importance of the United States staying competitive in science, technology, engineering and math -- the "STEM" subjects. Developing workers with expertise in these areas is essential to strengthening the economy, by driving innovation. Yet U.S. students score lower than students in many other countries in math and science.

The Girl Scouts is taking a lead role in improving America's STEM skills by respecting young women as prospective scientists and scientifically literate workers, and by bringing awareness and excellent opportunities to millions of girls who might otherwise not pursue their passion for science.

Women make up about half of the workforce but hold only 24 percent of U.S. jobs in technical fields, according to the National Math and Science Initiative.

Getting girls interested in science is nothing new to the Girl Scouts. The organization has worked for many years with partners including NASA, the National Science Foundation, Dell, AT&T, Google and Lockheed Martin to provide learning opportunities for their troops. Thousands of girls throughout the country have earned badges and participated in leadership courses that involve STEM subjects. Scouts are designing and building robots, completing energy audits in buildings, assessing air quality, and doing sophisticated math, computer programming and graphic design.

The Girl Scouts also connects troops with scientists and engineers who serve as mentors, introducing girls to a variety of STEM careers. And it is partnering with organizations such as The New York Academy of Sciences to enlarge its mentoring programs.

"America has a huge opportunity for economic growth when looking at girls' interest in science, technology, engineering and math," says Anna Maria Chávez, chief executive of the Girl Scouts of the USA. "It is in this country's best interest to make girls feel supported and capable when it comes to involvement in STEM fields -- and anything else they set their minds to and have traditionally been steered away from. Our research shows that girls do just as well in math and science as boys do, but their confidence in their math and science abilities is lower than boys."

Chavez is referring to research just released by the Girl Scouts that looks at teenage girls' attitudes and abilities about STEM subjects. On the upside, 82 percent of teenage girls feel that they are smart enough to have careers in these fields, and 74 percent say they are interested in STEM subjects. But only 13 percent of the girls surveyed say a STEM career would be their first choice.

Why? Nearly 50 percent of teenage girls say they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or class, and 57 percent believe if they went into a technical career, they'd have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.

These girls are insightful -- and, unfortunately, probably right. That's why the Girl Scouts' efforts to encourage girls to experiment with science on any level is so crucial.

The task is to convert girls' intelligence and interest into a long-term love for science and technology, and, ultimately, employment in STEM occupations. To do this, girls need to develop confidence and resilience. We need to create ways for them to continually interact with science, to face their fears and failures with strength and grace, and to be supported as they meet obstacles.

Nine out of 10 teenage girls surveyed by the Girl Scouts say they're motivated to prove people who doubt their capabilities wrong. Combining this motivation with ongoing opportunities to engage in science will make a long-term difference. The Girl Scouts' past 100 years of achievement is laudable, and its current focus on STEM means that the organization's impact will continue well into the next century.