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Girls in Tech, KC STEM program

Commerce Bank and Girls in Tech KC work to close STEM Gender Gap.

While the gender gap in STEM careers is widely known, the underlying statistics can still be surprising. According to the National Science Foundation, while women hold 57 percent of all professional occupations, they represent just 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. And despite the fact that female K-12 students’ achievement in math and science is on par with their male peers, fewer than 20 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer sciences or engineering are earned by women. The numbers for minority and low-income students are even lower.

Commerce Bank is trying to help close these gaps. In partnership with the KC STEM Alliance – a network of educators, business partners and affiliates created to boost interest in STEM careers – Commerce leads programs to increase Kansas City-area girls’ interest in studying fields like computer science.

One such program is Girls in Tech KC, which was created in 2015 to introduce female high school and middle school students to STEM-related career paths, specifically computer science. Recognizing the need for more women in tech-related fields, Commerce Bank has been involved with Girls in Tech KC from its inception.

“We even helped with the grant proposal that helped get Girls in Tech KC up and running,” says Lacey Frank, an assistant vice president and IT workforce strategies manager at Commerce. Frank helps lead the bank’s relationship with the KC STEM Alliance. “We were one of the first companies that said we wanted to be involved,” she adds. “We were there when [Kansas City] Mayor Sly James announced the program.”

The focal point of Commerce’s involvement with Girls in Tech KC is an annual event called Hour of Code, during which the company hosts dozens of students at its downtown Kansas City office. Hour of Code gives girls an opportunity to learn the basics of coding through the Code.org portal, and meet some of the women who work in tech positions at Commerce.

“We provide mentors for the day who are at different stages of their careers, so the students get a sense of what their potential career progression might look like,” says Frank. “We make it fun for the kids, but we also give them an opportunity to ask questions. And boy do they.”

Lesley Martin sees the impact of Hour of Code first-hand. A Project Lead The Way (PLTW) computer science teacher at Staley High School in Kansas City, Martin has brought students to the event each year. “It’s one of the reasons we have more girls in our computing classes now,” she says. “It gives them exposure to programming and helps them understand the logic behind it. And it’s fun; the girls really love it.”

Martin notes that the benefits of Hour of Code go beyond a basic introduction to computer science. “Commerce brings in speakers and mentors, and that helps give the girls an idea of the kind of career options that are available to them,” she says. “They get to see role models who are working in the field. They find it very energizing.”

Students who attend Hour of Code events also tell Martin that they enjoy the sense of camaraderie they feel during their experience. “The girls really bond when they go,” she says. “They get to know each other and end up taking my PLTW computer science classes together. They like meeting the middle-school girls, too. It’s such a positive experience. I have students who ask to go back to Hour of Code every year.”

The students’ excitement about Girls in Tech KC and the Hour of Code events is music to Frank’s ears. Despite the fact that about a third of Commerce’s IT roles are held by women, it has proven challenging to increase that number. “It’s difficult for us to find strong female candidates for STEM-related careers,” she says, “and we consider it important to have more women in those roles. We need that diverse mindset at the table when we’re thinking about the products and services we develop for our customers.”

Frank notes that she recently interviewed a job candidate who became interested in a tech career after attending an early Hour of Code event. “We were shocked,” Frank says. “We had hoped that our efforts would lead to more female candidates for IT positions, but we didn’t expect it this soon.”

As Frank points out, though, while having a stronger pipeline of job candidates is a helpful byproduct of Commerce’s work with Girls in Tech KC, it’s not the main reason for the bank’s involvement. “We view it as the right thing to do,” she says. “There’s so much opportunity out there in STEM fields, and if we’re able to make girls aware of it at an early age, it’s worth all the hard work.”

Commerce Bank’s chief information officer, Dave Roller, agrees. “We’ve been a part of this community for more than 150 years, and we do well when the community is doing well,” he says. “We’re in this for the long haul, and we will continue to support programs like Hour of Code. You have to invest time and energy into your community, and we want to support ours for the next 150 years.”

The 2019 Girls in Tech KC events are scheduled for December 10-15, 2019 during Computer Science Education Week. To learn more about how to participate, contact the KC STEM Alliance at kcstem@kcstem.org.

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