BY DANIKA KIMBALL
The number of women graduating with degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has lagged behind those of their male counterparts for decades. This is particularly true in the areas of engineering, where women’s graduation rates have remained stagnant for nearly 45 years. The graduation rates in computer science fields are equally abysmal, as a mere one in five computer science degrees are awarded to women.
The lack of women in STEM fields has the potential to lead to a number of societal detriments.
“This needs to change, as the lack of women in STEM will continue to plague our country until all students, regardless of sex, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle and high school,” Edutopia author Karen D. Purcell writes. “If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into the fields that will move us forward, we must look to all of the population. More women can contribute to our field, and we can help make that happen.”
There are a number of strategies that ought to be considered, but first, educators must ask themselves why this disparity exists and what can be done to aid the problem.
Several factors might influence a young woman’s decision to pursue a particular career path, but studies show that lack of ability is not one of them. In fact, most show that there is no major difference in STEM ability between the two genders. There is a divide, however, in perceived competence between the two genders.
“One study found that by the spring of kindergarten, boys have a greater willingness to learn math concepts,” Huffington Post contributor Alicia Chang writes. “By third grade, boys rate their own math competence higher than girls do, even though no differences in actual performance are found.”
There are also pervasive and widely held stereotypes that suggest boys possess more innate abilities in STEM than girls do. This stereotype has proven to impact children’s learning. Boys tend to receive more encouragement in mathematics and science from parents and teachers, and their skills tend to be overestimated when compared to their female peers. Additionally, girls tend to receive gender-specific toys that may not encourage STEM based skills such as building or spatial reasoning.
While children are aware of physical differences as early as age two, they don’t have a complete grasp of society’s gender roles until age seven, note the child education experts at Kindercare. “That journey of understanding is important for shaping both children’s identity and what they can and cannot become, and how gender messages are internalized can have a real impact on your child’s life path,” they continue.
Socialization in early childhood matters. If girls are not encouraged, and also do not expect to succeed in math and other STEM fields, it’s hardly surprising that by the time they reach college they choose to pursue other areas of expertise.
The first step to creating meaningful change in order to encourage more women and girls to pursue STEM careers, is to acknowledge the challenges that currently exist. Bringing awareness to the implicit bias that persists in education will allow teachers and parents to be more cognizant of how they speak to young women, how to better mentor them, and how to encourage active and enthusiastic participation in STEM studies.
“Correcting the negative perceptions that girls develop at a young age can, however, lead them to embrace math and science when they reach high school, rather than avoid the subjects,” Purcell writes. “Administrators and educators must strive to create environments in high school and college math and science programs that are inviting to females if we want to prevent the likelihood of their choosing a different direction. As long as young boys and girls are exposed to science and technology and are equally encouraged to study those disciplines, those with talent and a genuine interest in those fields will be able to develop that interest.”
Beyond recognizing problematic patterns of socialization, experts note that there are other ways to ensure that girls remain invested in STEM. Some note that taking the focus off grades may be one stepping stone into keeping girls active.
“That was very important to me, because I wasn’t doing great in those classes, but I was liking them,” writes 22-year-old Samara Trilling, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Computer Science program who now works as a software engineer for Google. “This was one of the things that made me feel free to take the next [computer science] class, and the next one, without worrying that it was a bad decision or that it was silly to keep taking classes that I wasn’t excelling in. Ultimately, I started doing better, and eventually caught up with my classmates who’d been coding since childhood,” she told NBC News.
This is especially important for young women who are trying to master a new skill they might not have experience in. “In most cases, these young women are trying to master a skill they haven’t tried before and they need to be easier on themselves,” Columbia University CS department chairwoman Julia Hirschberg tells NBC News.
It’s also important that women find a community where they can share their experiences, triumphs, struggles, and find mentorship moving forward. In male dominated fields especially, women are more likely to feel alienated in their studies. Whether that community is online, or face-to-face, these relationships can be valuable once women have chosen to study in STEM fields.
“The value of mentorship is irreplaceable,” Purcell argues. “Finding a mentor early on can do wonders for building confidence and translating it into career satisfaction.”
As the University of Cincinnati’s Master of Education program points out, “the future success and leadership of the United States lies in the hands of our educational system and the students emerging with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.” In order for the U.S. to progress, women and young girls must be an integral part of colleges’ STEM recruiting efforts, and be supported throughout their education.
Danika is a writer and musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on Twitter @sadwhitegrrl