The percentage of women pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) continues to drop precipitously. The STEM fields with the smallest number of women are physics, engineering, and computer science.
For example, according to the National Science Foundation, women graduates in computer sciences have plummeted from 28% to just 17% over the last decade.
This drop in females in STEM fields comes precisely at a time when most economists predict that STEM fields will be critical to the prosperity of the U.S. economy for many years to come.
Parents and educators need to step up to inspire girls to persevere in STEM fields and help close this gender gap.
Research shows that there are two main reasons women do not pursue STEM fields.
1. Stereotype Threat. There are two stereotypes that persist with respect to math and science. The first is that boys are better at math than girls. The second is the stereotypical image of a scientist as a man (typically an old, white male).
2. Lack of Exposure. Middle school girls lack exposure to what STEM careers for women really look like and so many girls assume that STEM careers are not fun or rewarding.
What Can Be Done
First, we need to get girls interested in math, science, technology, and engineering at an early age. We can’t afford to wait until high school or college to expose girls to STEM.
“The field’s stunted growth, especially for women, is rooted in education. There just aren’t enough kids weaned on the topic in high school and, before that, elementary school”, says Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.
One of the challenges girls can face, if they start later in life, is that many boys have a big head start. “Many boys start programming at a young age, and for a variety of reasons, girls do not,” says Elizabeth Stark, a lecturer on Internet issues at Stanford Law School. “If they start at 18, it can be discouraging to be around people that have done it for years.”
Second, girls need to learn about and meet role models. They need to see that someone, similar to themselves, has conquered the same challenges and became successful.
It makes all the challenges much easier to face. “Having role models is important,” Dorothy Nicholls says. “The problem is there aren’t enough, as there are in entertainment and sports.”
Parents Need to Get Involved!
Parents of young girls need to do three critical things to help their daughters decide if a STEM career might be right for them.
First, seek out extra-curricular opportunities for girls to engage in science and engineering. Look for seminars, summer camps, or community programs that expose girls to robotics, computer programming, and real-world science. A well run, hands-on program can do wonders in exciting a young girl’s interest and passion for STEM.
Math Plus Academy, an after-school enrichment program in central Ohio offers numerous STEM camps and classes that are led by certified teachers and are designed to engage students and spark their interest in STEM fields at a young age.
Second, find role models for your daughter. Unfortunately, science textbooks are filled with images and stories about male scientists like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Isaac Newton. Rarely, do they contain stories about female scientists like Lise Meitner or Barbara McClinktock.
Parents can remedy this by exposing their daughters to this rich history. Go online and do some research together. You’ll discover amazing women who have made an incredible impact on science and technology.
Third, take your daughter to see different workplaces where real career women are using STEM. Find non-traditional careers that inspire your daughter. Point out the value of the work these women are doing and help your daughter develop dreams of her own.
In this day and age of computers and liberated women, girls shouldn’t let stereotyping and inadequate introduction to STEM fields preclude them from becoming a part of a career which may soon dictate how the economy will run.
Dr. Raj Shah is the founder of Math Plus Academy, an after-school enrichment program offering math, problem solving, chess, robotics, and computer programming classes for elementary and middle school students. It is the ideal solution for parents who believe that school is not enough and want to give their child the ultimate advantage.
Math Plus Academy has two locations in Central Ohio, one in Powell and the other in New Albany.