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Girls in STEM: Translating Interest into Achievement

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 -- Sarah Cornelius

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.”

— President Barack Obama, February 2013

In the past several decades, huge progress has been made in closing the gender-equality gap. According to the Center for American Progress, women now hold nearly 52 percent of all professional-level jobs and earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. However, the statistics don’t look as good when the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are considered. The National Math + Science Initiative reports that women make up less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce and earn only 45 percent of STEM undergraduate degrees. What’s more, for every 100 female undergrad students, only 12 will earn a STEM degree. Of those 12, only 3 will still be in STEM fields 10 years after graduation.

Concern for this issue goes deeper than the desire to promote equality. The STEM fields are where the economy is growing–80 percent of the fastest-growing American jobs are STEM related. It is expected that by 2018, an additional 1.2 million STEM positions will need to be filled by qualified candidates. America as a whole lags in STEM education, with U.S. students ranked 30th and 23rd in math and science performance, respectively. Encouraging women to pursue STEM education and careers can help fill critical (and well-paying) jobs and close that performance gap. So how can we make this happen?

1. Dispel the Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes still exist regarding the STEM fields. Whether conscious or unconscious, beliefs remain about boys’ greater aptitude and potential to perform highly in math and science subjects. Men continue to be represented in STEM careers more frequently in the media, subtly reinforcing the stereotypes of the fields being male dominated. Despite research showing that girls and boys perform equally well in math and science, these biases can seep into girls’ self-concepts, affecting everything from their performance on math and science tests to their perseverance in sticking with math and science courses when subject matter grows challenging. Be aware of these stereotypes, and make a concerted effort to not promote them in the classroom. Studies have shown that when girls are told that girls and boys perform equally well on a test, there is no gender difference in the results.

2. STEM Careers Are About More Than Tech

The lack of women’s representation in STEM careers isn’t because of a lack of interest—a study from the Girl Scout Research Institute found that nearly 74 percent of American high school girls are interested in STEM fields and subjects. Why doesn’t this interest translate to girls pursuing careers in these fields? Surveys show that girls tend to be interested in careers that involve helping others, such as teaching or counseling. STEM careers get passed over because they are not traditionally thought of as fulfilling philanthropic aspirations. Make girls aware of all of the good that can be done with a STEM career, such as working on green technology to improve the environment or doing medical research. If girls know that they can achieve broader career and personal goals by pursuing STEM, an interest can be much more easily translated into a career choice.

3. Provide Mentorship

Support from adults can be hugely helpful in encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers. Providing girls with adult role models in STEM fields also makes a vast difference. By meeting women who have already built careers in STEM, girls can get a clearer idea of what such a career actually entails, what obstacles they may face, and how to successfully overcome them. Mentorship like this, whether formal or informal, offers an important chance for exposure and relationship building that can make STEM careers feel realistic instead of intimidating.

Want to learn about Edmentum’s solutions for STEM learning? Check out this resource on our online courseware for STEM programs.