Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day is observed annually by the United Nations and other organizations to encourage the involvement of girls and women into the field of Science and celebrate women in STEM.
As we celebrate women in STEM fields today, I also want to look at how we can encourage more girls to consider STEM careers.
Women are still underrepresented in STEM jobs. Women represent about 35% of STEM degrees, but it varies quite a bit by discipline from about 60% in biological and biomed sciences to about 20% in engineering and computer science. When it comes to the workforce, women represent about 50% in the life sciences and only about 15% in engineering.
Several studies have shown that girls and boys have the similar abilities in math and science in elementary school and in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades are within 3 points of each other on standardized math tests. So what’s happening that’s making girls turn away from STEM in college and their careers?
Well, a couple things…
Fixed vs Growth Mindset
In a long term study of seventh graders, researchers found that the just fact that the girls outperform boys at a young age, changed the conversations they had with the adults around them. The girls heard that they were smart (fixed mindset) and the boys heard that they needed to focus and try harder (growth mindset). Years later in school, on difficult tasks, the girls gave up on challenging tasks because they didn't think they were smart enough, but the boys tried harder. In fact the smartest of the girls gave up earliest because they were never taught to try harder.
Work by Carol Dweck and others have found that kids with a fixed mindset avoid challenges, give up early when they run into obstacles, see effort as worthless, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the successes of others. On the other hand, kids with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find inspiration in the successes of others.
You might think that being good at science or math would be a good indicator of whether a person would pursue a degree or career in STEM. But a study by researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota found that earning the highest standardized math test scores, accounted for very little of the gender difference in the likelihood of choosing a STEM degree.
It turns out that interest, not achievement, in STEM is more closely related to pursuing a degree and career in STEM. Obviously achievement can contribute to interest, but the biggest factor in determining whether a student would pursue a STEM degree at the end of high school was their interest in STEM at the beginning of high school.
A 2014 survey found that social encouragement from family, friends, and educators was the factor most likely to encourage girl’s interest in STEM careers.
They don’t really know what engineering is
Mechanical and electrical engineering make up the majority of STEM jobs, but these two fields of engineering have lowest percent of women earning degrees at around 12% nationwide. Mechanical and electrical engineering are often associated with building and wiring things, which women don’t typically have much experience in growing up. But to be fair, most boys probably don’t get much experience in that these days either.
I think it has more to do with not knowing what exactly engineering is. Maybe the word mechanical invokes the idea of big machinery. A couple years ago, I met with the leaders of the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas at their amazing STEM Center of Excellence. They said that the girls often don’t realize that what they are doing is engineering.
Engineers work on projects from building to bridges, electric cars to race cars, clothes to chocolate. Every industry needs engineers. We need to get the word out that engineering is everywhere.
Girls need more role models that look like them
Girls also need women role models. A 2012 study by MIT Economist Esther Duflo, focused on young women in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, where a 1993 law required that one-third of village council positions be reserved for women. Having a woman in power had a huge impact on the aspirations of the local teen girls. The gender gap in educational goals was completely erased.
While the study wasn’t specifically about STEM, the important of having women role models is just as important in STEM. Young girls need to have role models that look like them to visualize and realize that they can grow up to be engineers and scientists.
What can you do?
Think about how you talk to the young girls in your life. Are you helping them gain a growth mindset. You may think it’s being supportive when you say, “You don’t have to be good at everything” to a child who didn’t do as well on a math test as they wanted, but what message does that send? Maybe letting them know that they need to study more and try harder if they want to do better is the better message to send.
Help them find role models. If you are a woman in STEM, that’s a no brainer. If you are a man in engineering, ask a female engineer coworker to talk to your daughter or at your kids’ school on career day. I have spoken to many of my friends children about STEM degrees and careers. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
What if you are not in a STEM field or have a STEM background? If you know engineers in your company, you can obviously ask them. Or you can do some research to help find resources in the fields your kids are interested in. I have several posts about people to follow, like YouTubers with STEM content. Just encourage them to stay interested in STEM..