Wal-Mart exec Rita Carney talks importance of mentoring girls in STEM education

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 888 views 

The shortage of technology workers in the U.S. continues to widen because not enough women enter or stay in the field, according to Rita Carney, vice president IT business continuity for Wal-Mart Technology.

Carney spoke at the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council’s monthly meeting in Bentonville on Wednesday (Jan. 11) about her passion for mentoring young women in the area of STEM education. Carney said she’s spent more than three decades working in technology, the past 24 of those at Wal-Mart.

“When I was in college half of the students in my math classes were women. That just isn’t the case today. We know girls that are encouraged to take STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and mentored along the way often excel in these fields,” Carney told Talk Business & Politics.

But she said too often when there are not mentors beginning in the junior high years, girls will lose interest because they don’t fully understand that a career in technology doesn’t have to mean you are writing code for a lifetime.

Carney said the first five years she worked at Wal-Mart, she was a database administrator, but most of her time since has been in a management capacity overseeing various infrastructure components, from hardware and software applications used by stores and suppliers for operations, logistics and elsewhere.

Carney is taking part in the national movement known as Million Women Mentors along with Karenann Terrell, chief information officer for Wal-Mart Stores. They are leaders in the movement since Wal-Mart has sponsored the entire state as part of this national mentoring initiative active now for two years.

Wal-Mart has not publicized this effort, and when asked for information twice last year, the retailer did not respond to Talk Business & Politics. Carney said the company is active in the program as a platinum level sponsor with funding, but the real work goes on with administrators in schools and the hundreds of mentor volunteers – men and women dedicated to engaging girls in STEM education and fostering mentorships for women and girls seeking technology careers.

Rita Carney, vice president IT business continuity for Wal-Mart Technology

Carney has taken on a mentee in the program who is now a student at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Carney said mentors agree to spend 20 hours a year talking with and cheering on their mentees in the areas of STEM education. Carney shared a recent conversation she had with her mentee around her spring schedule at NWACC. Her mentee has an interest in robotics and works in the IT field now building and repairing computers.

“I asked her what science she was taking this semester and she told me biology. I asked her why, wondering if she had an interest in medical technology. She told me biology would be easy. I then asked her what science might fit better with her field of robotics and she knew physics would be a better science but added there was so much math in that class. I asked her if she was taking a math class and what her grade was last semester in her math class. She told she had an A. So it wasn’t that she couldn’t do the math, she just needed a nudge. It felt great to get the text a few days later that she had changed her schedule and was now taking physics,” Carney said.

She also spoke about the mentors she has had throughout her career, noting that some were men and some women and it took them all to get her where she is.

Carney said part of the reason she is so passionate about mentoring girls in STEM education is because they are needed in the workforce as technology touches every business and is radically transforming most of them.

Jobs in the STEM careers have grown three times faster than non-STEM jobs in the past decade and 80% of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. depend upon mastery of mathematics and scientific knowledge.

While women comprise 50% of the U.S. workforce, just 24% are in STEM fields, a statistic that has held constant for nearly the last  decade, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Almost one-third of all male freshmen, compared with only 15% of all female freshmen, plan to major in a STEM field even though 15 out of the 20 fastest growing occupations in 2015 are expected to require science or mathematics training.

Carney said women often leave STEM degree paths despite good academic standing. Even when they persist and earn a STEM degree, women are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM field, despite the fact the pay is high. She said women might only earn 72 cents for every $1 a man earns in the same profession, but that isn’t true in technology related jobs. She said there is near parity and women who excel into leadership roles often earn more than men because they are in such high demand.

She encouraged every business person attending the meeting to think about how they might take part in the Million Women Mentors program in Arkansas which began last year in concert with Lt. Governor Tim Griffin who conducted a roadshow in the six largest areas of Arkansas last year to drum up interest in the program. Carney said Griffin will in 2017 visit six more areas including Batesville, Harrison, Russellville and Arkadelphia.

Carney said Wal-Mart is working with high school students and RockFish Interactive is working with middle school students and there are many opportunities for groups and businesses to engage. She said the Girls Scouts are taking part and working with girls as young as kindergarten age.

“It’s going to take many more to help us reach our goal which is now 2 million girls with mentors, now that more states have jumped onboard,” Carney said. “We know that helping girls excel in STEM fields can be a game-changer for households and generations because women often reinvest their success in their communities.”

Carney said there are several programs at work from Ozark Stem Education, AR Girls Code, Hour of Code and coding camps taking place for pre-teens across the region but too often even when there is a scholarship to cover the cost, the girls don’t have transportation for these camps that take place in the summer.

“Surely there is an answer given we are an Uber society, but too many people don’t know there is problem,” she added.

Caroline Gschwend, a high school senior in Rogers, also spoke at the meeting. Gschwend, homeschooled her entire life, entered the Congressional App Challenge in 2016 after she attended a couple of summer coding camps. She began to play around with app creation in areas that interested her. She created the DefendUs App which was selected as the winner for the 3rd Congressional District.

Gschwend said it took her about two weeks to come up the gaming app that is set in the American Revolution and has chief characters in the war (history heroes) fighting off their foes. She used IOS and Swift coding to design the app. Gschwend said she is still trying to decide on which college she will attend but the short list includes University of Arkansas, University of California-Berkeley, and University of California-Los Angeles. Her plans are to major in computer science and she has already signed up to mentor younger girls in STEM.

Carney congratulated Gschwend on winning the Congressional App Challenge which garnered her a trip to Washington D.C. she plans to take in April. Also last year she was one of 28 international winners in the Google Code-In competition which landed her a trip to San Francisco and tour of Google Headquarters.

“If you want to leave me your business card Caroline, I will be glad to take it,” Carney told the teen. “If you don’t have one, you really should get some and I am not kidding.”

Carney closed the meeting with a call to action saying there are many more mentors needed and not everyone has to be a coder. She said marketing, design and an interest in technology can qualify someone as a program mentor. She said men also are being asked to step forward to raise the next generation of tech savvy females it will take to keep the world moving forward.