Last week, I was privileged to represent AT&T at the Million Women Mentors program launch in our nation’s capital.

More than 100 corporate and not-for-profit leaders gathered to help kick off this new initiative that challenges men and women in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) fields to support a more diverse STEM workforce by pledging to mentor girls and young women.

I was there as a guest of MentorNet, a social mentoring platform led by Dr. Mary Fernandez, most recently a prominent researcher at AT&T Labs. Mary has written extensively about the importance of mentorship to ensure that women and minorities are represented in STEM ranks. MentorNet’s platform is one solution that will facilitate the matching of mentors and mentees.

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The program’s launch largely focused on debunking stereotypes that equate science and technology with “uncoolness.” In fact, a group of four Science Cheerleaders (who knew?) kicked off the event.

The cheerleaders, who support professional sports teams in and around the D.C., work as public health professionals, IT engineers and satellite intelligence analysts when they’re not on the sidelines. They make it their mission to playfully challenge stereotypes and encourage women to pursue careers in STEM. They, like all of us at AT&T, see no reason why science and “cool” things like cheerleading should be mutually exclusive.

Frankly, we need more cheerleaders to help bring attention to our nation’s STEM talent crisis. We simply aren’t graduating enough STEM majors to fill the needs of employers in the immediate and more distant future.

Much has been written about encouraging young women and minorities to participate in coding camps and activities and to register for elective STEM classes. Corporate America is doing its part with job-shadow and internship programs and funding development of materials and curricula. In fact, AT&T’s foundation has invested more than $923 million in education since 1984.

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In my opinion, the Million Women Mentors program affects the most crucial piece of the puzzle. Once you inspire students to pursue careers in STEM – by selling the versatility of career options, showing the lucrative career paths, talking about the higher salary potential, and maybe even giving them some robots to play with – we need to make sure that this inspiration continues, especially through the challenging math and science courses that are required to achieve STEM degrees and credentials.

STEM courses are difficult and cause many students to lose momentum. As a result, they often switch to non-STEM paths or worse, they drop out. The data back it up – according to a November 2013 report on STEM attrition by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of students who enrolled in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in 2003-04 had dropped out or switched majors by 2009.

Programs like MentorNet match students with STEM professionals who are applying those skills in the “real world” and they provide guidance and coaching to inspire students to complete their STEM coursework. This inspires students to pursue careers that are more lucrative. Coincidentally, MentorNet is launching a new social network for mentoring in the spring. If you are a technical manager and would like to mentor an undergraduate student, sign up here.

At AT&T, we have more than 90,000 female employees, and nearly half of them are in STEM-related jobs. We’re proud that more than 60 percent of our female managers are in mentoring relationships and we pledged to raise high school graduation rates by providing students with 1 million hours of mentoring by our employees via our Aspire Mentoring Academy.

“This is not about me, this is about we” was a mantra emphasized throughout the Million Women Mentors launch event. It’s so true. I believe we are all up to the challenge of becoming mentors and making a real difference in someone’s life. Please join me and more than 42,000 others who’ve already pledged to mentor by clicking here.

This post originally appeared on the AT&T Consumber Blog.

About the Author

Rachel Book

Associate Director of Global Talent Attraction and Diversity at AT&T

Rachel_Book

Rachel Book, Associate Director of Global Talent Attraction and Diversity at AT&T, is based in New York, New York.

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