A recent study from the U.S. Census Bureau found that even though women make up nearly half of the workforce, they represent only a quarter of employees in STEM fields. Put bluntly, STEM fields are dominated by males who, unfortunately, are often considered–either explicitly or implicitly–the most qualified for these positions simply based on their gender. But this lack of female representation in the STEM professions is not reflective of any real difference in the skills or strengths held by women. In fact, girls often outperform boys on aptitude tests that measure STEM-related content knowledge and skills while in school.
This societal conception that views males as the more appropriate fit for these fields begins early in childhood. All too often, male students are rewarded for their quick responses in math or are encouraged to build in their free time. On the other hand, female students are disproportionately complimented on writing and language skills and guided towards play that simulates care-taking or includes artistic creativity. These seemingly innocuous habits have significant implications for what female students see as possible in their futures.
Educators, career counselors, and professionals who work with children must find ways to close this gap between aptitude and interest to ensure that female students are not artificially limited in their future career paths. Doing this will expand the diversity of perspectives and voices within the STEM fields and maximize the potential for innovation and problem solving across sectors and societies.
Assessing The Current Reality
A fundamental first step to addressing this gap is to take stock of how these trends playing out in a particular school or district. Some data points to consider in this analysis are:
- Math and science testing data
- Enrollment in advanced math or science classes
- Involvement in STEM-related extracurriculars
- Representation of female STEM role models
It is important to note any disparities between strength in STEM subject areas and those choosing to be involved in STEM-related learning and activities. Reflect on the role models being presented and messaging that is being conveyed to students about who belongs in STEM fields. Finally, identify areas where there is room to work towards improving the gender inequities that become apparent.
Reframing Our Understanding of STEM
In order to make inroads to expand interest in STEM fields and careers, it is important to consider how these disciplines and related careers are described and understood across the K-12 spectrum. Many people–students and teachers alike–have very narrow perceptions of STEM professions, which limits their attractiveness to a large swath of students. By expanding the understanding of the types of jobs available and what those roles entail, we can paint a more accurate picture of what it looks like to work in STEM. For example, rather than the ill-conceived notion that engineers work tirelessly by themselves doing hours and hours of mathematical calculations, students should know that engineers are creative designers who transform ideas into reality. And rather than scientists being seen as stuck in a lab monotonously performing experiments, educators and counselors can help students to understand that scientists are analytical investigators asking important questions and collaborating to solve problems.
Related to broadening the understanding of what is involved in STEM fields, adults must help students, especially female students, connect their strengths and passions to the work happening in the STEM fields. As young students show an interest in mixing things together or even baking or cooking, explain the connection to chemistry. As students ask questions and use trial and error to find the right solution, share with them that they are experimenting like scientists. As they design, test, and build something new, explain how they are working like engineers do to create entirely new technologies. Explicitly making connections between student skill and success and STEM professions helps students view their passions and talents as relevant in STEM.
Role Models and Connections
One of the most impactful ways to encourage female students to consider engaging in STEM fields is to provide female role models of STEM professionals. When young female students can see themselves in these role models, they are more likely to see these paths as realistic and attractive options. To do this, schools might consider bringing in female engineers or computer coders for career talks with students. Educators and counselors might find ways to connect female students to networks or organizations, such as Girls Who Code, that explicitly seek to advance girls in STEM education. Classes might spotlight female scientific trailblazers well beyond the month of March, which celebrates Women’s History Month. Further, paying attention to subtle cues such as the gender of images used in lessons or presentations–and ensuring that females are represented in equal weight as males–can go a long way in conveying that women have a place in STEM fields.
These connections become even more important for older students headed into STEM professions. Female students can learn from other females who have productive and rewarding careers in STEM fields. And it can be incredibly valuable for female students to connect with other female students with similar interests so they can support one another as they forge their own paths. Counselors and educators can help students to make these connections, find mentors, and create spaces for students to both formally and informally share their aspirations, struggles, and successes.
Gender Equity is Good for All
Beyond inspiring female students, ensuring a diversity of representation and inclusion of females in STEM serves an important role for all students. Showcasing females in STEM fields helps change the overall paradigm about who can succeed in those fields. With this change, male and female students and educators begin to think of the diversity of individuals in those roles.
Shifting this mindset will take a focused, intentional effort as these gender stereotypes are deeply embedded in our history and collective subconscious. But doing so is necessary as it will benefit both individual students and global communities. In addition, more females in STEM fields means there is additional creativity, thoughtful problem-solving, and a diversity of perspectives working to solve the problems and challenges of the future–expanding the limits of what is possible.