By Linda Moore

October 11 is International Day of the Girl, and today we stand with girls everywhere — those who are breaking down barriers and challenging the status quo, and those who still face burdens that prevent them from realizing their full potential.

As part of the annual activities, each year the United Nations focuses on one particular issue that girls face around the world.This year’s theme is “With Her: A Skilled Girl Force.” The goal is to raise awareness around the challenges girls encounter in their pursuit of higher education and gainful employment. In addition, today the U.N. is launching a year-long campaign to advocate for more opportunities for girls to build the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.

This is an important cause that hits close to home for me, TechNet, and our member companies.

Because of limited exposure to hands-on STEM and computer science education and training as well as a dearth of female mentors in these fields, women in the U.S. have been disproportionately locked out of jobs requiring these skills. Although women make up more than half of the American workforce, they hold less than 20 percent of the tech jobs in this country. This urgently needs to change, and the current job market suggests we have plenty of room for improvement.

For example, there are currently over 570,000 vacant computing jobs across the U.S. because our education system is not producing enough skilled workers each year to fill them — a skills gap that is only growing. If we do not reverse this trend by 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs nationally than there will be graduates to fill them.

In order to close this gap, policymakers at all levels must work hand in hand with the private sector on a concerted effort to make the STEM fields more open and inclusive. Critical to this effort is getting more students — and especially more girls — interested in these fields at a young age. Equally important is to make sure we help keep them interested as they grow up.

At TechNet, promoting STEM and computer science education for all is a top policy priority that we proudly advocate for at both the state and federal levels. Our work has involved securing funding for traditional programs at the K-12 and college levels, as well as career and technical education initiatives. While pushing for the right public policies has been a focus, TechNet and our members are also leading and supporting our own initiatives to provide engaging educational opportunities for young people with the goal of instilling in them a lifelong interest in these exciting fields.

These opportunities have included “Teach A Girl To Tech Day” for Washington, D.C. area middle school girls on International Day of the Girl 2017; an Hour Of Code for Texas K-12 students at their state capitol in Austin; and an Innovative Learning Lab for a group of Sacramento middle school students to mark California Diversity in STEM and Tech Week.

We pay particularly close attention to young students because getting them interested in STEM and computer science early on gives them the confidence to continue pursuing these subjects even as they become more rigorous and complex. This is especially true for girls. While they tend to lose interest in these fields over time, one survey shows that girls who take the advanced placement computer science course in high school are ten times more likely to major in computer science in college and go on to enjoy a rewarding career. The more girls we encourage to pursue these fields now, the more role models and mentors future generations will have to look to — and the greater progress we will make in building a truly modern and inclusive “skilled girl force.”

Helping more of America’s citizens, particularly our girls, succeed in the modern economy is not only the right thing to do; it is also an economic imperative in order for the U.S. to recapture our global leadership in innovation. If we fail to reverse the current trends that are leaving a significant part of our population uninterested in contributing to the innovation economy or ill-equipped with the skills needed to succeed in it, we will all pay the price in terms of missed opportunities and unrealized ideas and promise we know that girls across our nation have to offer.

These are just a few of the reasons we work to ensure that girls’ interest in STEM and computer science remains strong from the start. We are proud of what we have already accomplished, but we know that there is still much more work to be done. So on this International Day of the Girl, we reaffirm our commitment to promote diversity in STEM and build the “skilled girl force” we need to have an even stronger economy that reaches even more people and communities.