This Girl Is Taking Her STEM Experience Abroad To Help Women Achieve Their Career Goals

This September, delegates from every G20 country will meet for the G20 Summit in Beijing, China. The G20, or Group of 20, is a forum made up of finance ministers and central bank governors of 19 countries, in addition to the European Union and several world financial institutions. These mostly male representatives gather to discuss key issues in the global economy.

Just one month prior to the official G20, young women ages 18-23 will gather from every G20 country, plus several others, for the annual G(irls) 20 Summit. Together, they will submit a communiqué to the G20 in Beijing, proposing resolutions to solve prominent issues of the world economy. This includes advancing female labor force participation, social change and economic empowerment.

This year’s U.S. delegate to the G(irls) 20 Summit is New York-raised Lauren Shum. The 20-year-old is a rising senior at Duke University, studying Electrical and Computer Engineering. She is also ready to take some of her skills international, affecting world change and getting more women involved in STEM.


HC: How did you get involved in G(irls) 20?

LS: I actually found out about the program through NCWIT, when I was in high school. NCWIT, or the National Center for Women & Information Technology, was brought up to me by my supervisor at the science museum where I worked in programming. She encouraged all of the women who worked there to apply to one of their award programs—and I ended up winning. They have an award for high school students, called the Award for Aspirations in Computing. They select 35 winners across the country, and there are 300 National Runners-up. I was actually a runner-up, and the New York Tri-State area local winner. That was the first time that I realized what I was doing was actually known as programming.

It’s been a really great resource, which I’ve stayed involved in through college…I found out about the G(irls) 20 summit through it. I saw the opportunity and thought, “Wow this is something I really want to do.” It’s about empowering women and that’s something I care about. G(irls) 20 just contained so many things that I wanted to be a part of.

It seemed like such a long shot, because they only pick one person. But I ended up applying anyway, and it worked out so that was really lucky.

HC: We’ve heard you’re interested in getting rid of “Frivolous Distractions.” What do you mean by that?

LS: I think that there are a lot of distractions in the world, and environmental damage is one of them. We totally don’t need to be sabotaging our environment the way we are. Another one is societal inequality. That’s another distraction that’s keeping us from being a society at equilibrium, where people can just live happily with each other. The fact is that there are still some people in our society that have more privileges than others. The fundamental unequal distribution of privileges is not a good thing. It keeps us from reaching our potential for what we could do.

HC: How did you get started teaching girls to code?

LS: I started a program a while back called “DigiGirls.” The target audience is middle school girls, and I was trying to teach them basic skills that I wanted to pass on. I thought, “You know, I only learned how to do this recently, but I bet a bunch of young girls could pick up these skills really fast.” So I taught the girls how to create mobile apps and make websites from scratch. I also taught them about basic electronics and putting together simple circuits. They learned about the different kinds of circuits, like series-parallel circuits. Just basic skills that I thought were introductory, but would give them a pretty good knowledge about what it’s like to work in tech.

I’ve been thinking about expanding this program to include both girls and boys. At the NCWIT summit just a year or two ago, one speaker explained that you can’t just empower women—you also need to talk to men about how they’re treating women. It makes sense, but there are so many programs out there that are only targeting women, helping them to develop skills and empowering them. I think that those programs are so necessary, but we also need to teach men and boys how to collaborate positively and meaningfully with girls.

HC: So how does teaching girls to code align with some of your environmental passions or female labor participation?

LS: It’s really software infrastructure that allows companies to improve energy efficiency technology. For example, there is the Smart Grid (AKA digital communications technology that tracks changes in utility usage). There is a lot of potential for technology to help with environmental problems.

But another reason that I teach girls how to code and work with technology is that I want to help with the equalization of the field. I am defined by my femaleness, whether I like it or not. It’s an issue that I care about because it directly impacts how people in the world interact with me. For example, should I start an electrical company, I’ll be taken less seriously or be less likely to receive venture funding because I’m a woman and people have unconscious biases. It’s statistically shown that this happens to people, whether they’re evaluated by a man or a woman.

So I think DigiGirls is one of my ways to give back and to counter these societal forces, where the cards are stacked against certain demographics. I think that training these girls from a younger age will give them a boost in maintaining their confidence in the face of adversity going forward.

HC: What are you most excited for when you travel to Beijing for the G(irls) 20 Summit?

LS: I am Chinese-American, my parents come from Hong Kong, and I’ve been learning the language for a while. Last summer, I actually interned in China. I was intrigued by the culture there, so I wanted to go back and experience it again. On my second visit, I’m excited to kind of reaffirm and solidify my thoughts on the culture and how things work over there.

HC: What’s made you passionate about female labor force participation?

LS: When I was in high school and I won the award from NCWIT, I obviously was excited. But I also didn’t understand why the award was just for women. I thought I could hold my own against the boys, and I almost believe that they diluted the value of the award by restricting it to one gender…I felt that making things just for women meant that society didn’t think women were good enough, and that they needed handicaps.

This is the mentality I went into college with. But the good thing about college is that there is a lot of self-discovery and there is a lot of mental development outside of the classroom. I found myself talking to my peers. Being in that environment, I started to think a little bit more about social issues. One of those was gender inequality, which I hadn’t really considered very heavily besides the representation problem. Previously, I thought that some women just may not be trying hard enough.

I soon realized that it’s not that women aren’t trying. It’s that when women do try, their efforts are seen as lesser than if a man tried. This is referred to as unconscious bias, and it is something that everyone harbors. It helps some people, in particular white men, but it hurts others, including women. When we unconsciously stereotype other people, we don’t make an accurate assessment of their abilities.

I find that programs that are just for women can be explained like this: If a river is floating in one direction, and you want to go upstream, these programs are like an extra motor on your boat. They let you work against certain forces as fast as someone else could float downstream. In order to get to the same place, you need that motor. They help women to achieve the same velocity as men already do.

HC: Tell us a little more about your #CareerGoals.

LS: Software is something I’m interested in and it is a tool in my repertoire. But my main focus is electrical engineering, which is what I’m majoring in. I’m trying to use my degree to segue into material science. I want to go to grad school and get my PhD in material science, because I’m interested in energy and clean tech. I think a lot of the issues we have in generating, storing and distributing (electrical) energy have to do with fundamentally material inefficiencies. By learning more about some of these materials…I will be in a better position to make meaningful contributions to this field.

I am also strongly considering staying in academia, but I’m not a huge fan of the publish or perish culture. So I guess the real dream would be to start a successful, double bottom line energy tech company, and hopefully make enough money to fund my own research.