This year saw an increase in the number of girls taking the AP® Computer Science Exam, and there are more women STEM teachers now than 20 years ago. However, it’s no secret that, historically, fewer girls and women have pursued studies and careers in fields of STEM (the well-known acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math). And underrepresentation continues to be an issue. Some of the largest discoveries in STEM were made by women, but less than one-third of those working in STEM today are women. And the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the field of technology will experience the highest growth in job numbers between now and 2030.
When one girl sees the power in STEM and computing, she becomes a role model for her friends and community.
—Shalini Kesar, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science & Information Systems, Southern Utah University
So in honor of National STEM/STEAM Day (November 8th), we’re looking at why there’s still a lack of women in STEM, and focusing on the different ways districts, schools, and educators can build an environment and curriculum that empower girls to pursue STEM courses and career paths.
Firstly, why aren’t more girls already pursuing STEM?
Girls and boys do not differ significantly in their abilities in math and science, but they do differ in their levels of interest and confidence in these subjects. A recent study conducted by Microsoft® in partnership with KRC Research found that the efforts to expand girls’ and women’s interest and employment in STEM and computer science are not working as well as intended, despite the higher priority schools have been placing on STEM.
Research shows that as girls get older, their confidence in coding and programming starts to wane. Some people believe social and infrastructural factors are at play. And certainly the lack of regular visuals of strong women STEM role models doesn’t help, nor does the lack of awareness about what STEM can offer girls. Others say that the gender stereotype around computing being “only for boys” is a major reason girls don’t consider the field—many girls just have a hard time envisioning themselves in STEM roles. Interestingly enough, research shows that tech companies with more women in management have a 34% higher return on investment.
What helps develop girls’ interest in STEM?
The Microsoft® study revealed that girls’ desire to seek out STEM learning opportunities is largely dependent on two motivating factors: creativity and making a difference in the world. “The girls we surveyed were really clear that they wanted to change the world. They want to do things that make a difference,” said Mark Sparvell, a member of the Microsoft® Education team. And many of the girls surveyed said they didn’t perceive STEM-related career pathways as falling into either of those two areas.
Research shows that tech companies with more women in management have a 34% higher return on investment.
How can my school empower girls to pursue STEM?
The answer isn’t to make everything pink. To truly empower girls to pursue STEM, it’s important to accommodate their interests on a deeper and more meaningful level. Show them how they can be creative in STEM and use it to make a difference in the world. (This is a great lesson for boys, too!)
Here are a few ways districts and schools can start building a school environment and curriculum that empower girls to pursue STEM:
- Give teachers more engaging and relatable STEM curriculum. The nonprofit Techbridge Girls taught fire ecology and took field trips when students and the community were affected by wildfires.
- Increase the number of STEM mentors—including parents—to teach girls about STEM and help build their confidence that they can succeed in STEM. Girls whose parents encourage them are twice as likely to stay in STEM, and for some subjects, a father’s influence can be stronger.
- Survey girls about their interests and the career fields they want to work in, and see how those can tie in to STEM.
- Surround students—both girls and boys—with images and stories of strong women STEM professionals and role models, from those who paved the way centuries ago to those who are doing so today. And make sure to include women of color, too. (Do your students know that mathematician Ada Lovelace is considered to have written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s? Did you know?) “When one girl sees the power in STEM and computing, she becomes a role model for her friends and community,” says Shalini Kesar, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science & Information Systems, Southern Utah University.
- Foster a learning environment where everyone has imperfections and mistakes are encouraged. Encourage questions, constantly, and let students know when you don’t know the answer—vulnerability in the classroom is okay. “Boys are pushed to take risks; girls are not. In fact, they feel like they have to be perfect at everything they do; they see getting a ‘B’ in math class as bad,” says founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani. “The process of learning how to code is learning how to fail. We need to teach girls that it is all right to sit with that discomfort of not knowing the right answer right away.”
- Tackle the learning gap early on in elementary school. Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools in Ohio started by introducing young students to computer science through the Hour of Code. (Organize an Hour of Code for your school December 3–9, 2018!)
- Start an all-girls after-school STEM club, and/or advertise local all-girls STEM clubs and events in your area, like Society of Women Engineers, Latinas in STEM, and many more. Girls who participate in STEM clubs and activities outside of school are more likely to say they’ll pursue STEM studies later.
- Break down walls between math, art, science, and English with cross-curricular learning, like scientific poetry or creative robotics.
Exposure is key when districts and schools want to empower girls to pursue STEM. The more girls learn about and gain experience with STEM, and the more they see other girls and women pursuing STEM, the more likely they are to consider a similar pathway. As girls’ education advocate and former first lady Michelle Obama says, “When you educate a girl, you educate a family, a community, a country.”
After publishing the research and results its study uncovered, Microsoft® also published an action guide to help close the gender gap in STEM. It offers additional ideas for education and nonprofit leaders, teachers, and parents.
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