To the Metaverse and Beyond: Access to STEAM Crosses the Digital Divide
By Diane McClelland, Dr. Angelina Dayton, Dr. Tom Furness III, Deborah Todd
The metaverse is opening doors for more and more people to work and play in virtual worlds. And within this parallel digital universe, we’re already starting to see virtual reality mirror actual reality in more ways than one—most notably with a lack of equality.
We know that with the exploration of an exciting new world comes great responsibility. And in that truth lies the possibility of creating a more accessible and equitable existence. So how can we leave the inequities of the real world out of the virtual world? The answer, in part, is by getting more girls and women into STEAM to help us bridge the digital divide.
The good news is that colleges and universities are beginning to make a very deliberate, concerted effort to recruit more young women for computer science majors. This can’t come soon enough. In 2021, young women graduating from college earned 18 percent of the nation’s computer science degrees, down from 37 percent in 1984. Current trends show the role of women in tech has declined over the last 35 years, and many women drop out of tech by the age of 35.
But interest in STEM careers seems to be rising. According to Zippia Research, in 2017, 74 percent of girls expressed a desire for a STEM career. That year, women held 49.7 percent of STEM-related bachelor’s degrees, but this didn’t necessarily translate into a tech career, as compared to men.
Career opportunities in STEM and STEAM have to come from more than interest and aptitude. They also have to come from equal access. Inequality is often fueled by policies created by governments, institutions, and corporations that raise roadblocks and barriers to access. These barriers are often based on gender, race, unconscious bias, and even zip codes. The subsequent policies suppress innovation and, as many corporations are discovering, stifle financial bottom lines.
Forbes 500 companies — with a purchasing power of five trillion USD — discovered in 2020 that placing women in leadership roles resulted in a 66 percent increase in ROI. Another report, in 2017, showed that organizations with at least eight out of 20 female managers gained 34 percent of their revenues from innovative products and services.
Young women are paying attention to women-run organizations. Recruiting for the next generation of college students, colleges and universities report that 27 percent of young women said they would consider going to work for companies with positive role models and an inclusive work environment.
The substantial contributions to innovation and profits underscore the importance of having more women at the leadership table, and serving as role models and mentors for younger women. We also need to acknowledge that other voices are missing from the conversation. Equity and inclusion, by definition, are for everyone. We have to take very real, necessary steps to include everyone at the table.
Access to these conversations in the physical world will, of course, determine who has access to them in the metaverse. Likewise, access to the metaverse will determine who can work with 21st century tools in yet-to-be designed digital worlds. Inequality as status quo isn’t sustainable—in society or business. If we don’t address inequalities in the physical world, they will be duplicated and magnified in the virtual world.
There are many under-utilized yet valuable solutions to our world’s challenges that women and other groups provide. One such group is the Girls STEAM Institute™, which is simultaneously addressing real- and virtual-world inequity through a business challenge competition for young girls ages 13-18.
Using project-based learning, the challenge tasks small teams of girls to develop business solutions addressing a global issue, in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Over the course of two days, the girls create a plan for a digital application, assign executive roles, develop a company, create a business plan complete with SWOT analysis, and put together a presentation. At the end of the second day, the teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges for feedback on the commercial viability of their projects.
The teams work in digital 2-D and 3-D realms, including VR. Participants report a higher level of self-confidence, and the value of their voice as part of a team—inside and outside of the virtual world. Many of the girls pursue college degrees in STEAM, moving into exciting new careers in emerging fields.
At the beginning of a new digital era, these girls are pioneering the way for others to join in the conversation. They’re becoming role models for older generations—on the value of access and equity in the metaverse.
Our communities are more successful with access, and with all of the brainpower, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking skills working for the greater good. We need the irreplaceable contributions of all peoples to bridge the digital divide to ensure a stronger, richer society.
Credits: Diane McClelland, Co-Founder, Girls STEAM Institute™ Deborah Todd,
Dr. Tom Furness III, co-founder of Virtual World Society, Dr. Angelina Dayton