Ask my 10-year-old daughter, an all-A student, avid reader, and Dr. Who fan, what an engineer “looks like” and she is unlikely to describe a woman.
Why do bright female students begin to slowly steer away from interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)? What can parents do to encourage their daughters to be passionate and curious about science? All learning obstacles removed, why do boys tend to gravitate toward careers in technical fields?
Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. Megan Smith and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns recently discussed their thoughts on getting girls excited about careers in science and technology with Fortune magazine as part of the Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C.
Smith credits her engineering career to a supportive trigonometry teacher and the school science fair—“they let us play,” she says. Burns credits hers to a natural affinity for math and her comfort with being different.
Smith shared her four-step plan to encourage girls to pursue degrees, and ultimately careers, in STEM.
Encouraging Girls To Embrace Science and Math
- Let girls “play.” Math and science should be about experimenting, and learning by doing.
- Teach girls the history of science, and give context as to why it’s so important.
- Encourage girls to pursue classes and other projects, such as science fairs, in STEM.
- Help young girls relate to women working in STEM by giving real life examples of women already in these jobs.
Also important, Burns says, is being candid to middle and high-school girls about the high-paying jobs in STEM fields. “Most high school students have no idea how much money they can make,” she notes.
Confidence is also a big factor and is not limited to the U.S., however. According to data included in a 2015 study released by the OECD, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education, girls around the world lag behind boys in math and science. Confidence, or lack thereof, is a huge factor.
There’s no quick fix to the underrepresentation of girls in STEM fields. However, teachers who help students see, understand, and experience the creative contributions of STEM to society, while working to alleviate stereotypes in the classroom, can be a positive influence.
Tween girls entering middle school, such as my 5th grader, are especially susceptible to succumbing to stereotypes that being “smart is not cool.”
According to Cascading Influences: Long-Term Impacts of Informal STEM Experiences for Girls, a report coauthored by the Franklin Institute’s McCreedy, girls’ positive attitudes toward science at age 10 significantly declines by age 14. Their interest in STEM fields drops way during the impressionable middle school years, despite the fact that girls are academically as capable as boys. Peer pressure is definitely a factor, teachers say. (See more on Scholastic.com in Girls Rock STEM.)
How can teachers help break the stereotypes about STEM careers and gender bias about what a scientist is “supposed” to look like? Bring STEM professionals—both female and male—into your classroom, and make sure they’re comfortable speaking with tweens and teens. An engineer who speaks only in jargon might reinforce the idea that STEM is for “other people,” while one who talks plainly about, for instance, bringing water to underserved populations might pique students’ interest.
What can we do to get girls excited about STEM? Educators and parents can partner to help students see, understand, and experience real-life contributions of STEM to society, while working to to put a stop to stereotypes about careers in science and engineering, are part of the solution.
Confident girls fare better in school. Let’s continue to focus on self-esteem and confidence in young girls so we can change the face of future engineers and scientists.
Jamie Reeves is a Nashville-based writer, editor, and lover of all things social media. She and her husband Alan have two daughters, two dogs, and too much laundry. This busy soccer mom can typically be found cheering from the sidelines or in her car on the way to school or sports practices. She loves traveling with her family and exploring fun things to do in Middle Tennessee. Jamie has been pontificating about poop and pinot noir at Blonde Mom Blog, since 2005.