In a perfect world, all people would have equal opportunity to achieve their professional goals. But the reality is not perfect for women in the workforce.
In many science, technology, engineering and math fields, especially in engineering and programming, women are underrepresented: While they represent half of all college-educated workers in the U.S., they made up just 28 percent of science and engineering workers in 2010 — an increase from 21 percent in 1993, according to the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report.
Trace back down the pipeline to STEM in K–12 and the facts don’t get any cheerier: Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math (even when they get better grades and test scores than boys) and are overlooked for slots in STEM academies and special programs. They may stop seeing themselves as being good at science and math as they move into middle school, where students begin to develop the skills they need for STEM majors and careers.
Girls do have one interesting advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than are boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science tend to get good grades in other subjects too, while boys tend to get good grades in only one area. For boys, that focus may translate into a stronger push toward a career in STEM; if you have fewer choices, you concentrate on making them count.
So when we complain that there is a “leaky pipeline” in K–12 education for girls in STEM courses, we should acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily a matter of discrimination or systemic bias. Girls are choosing not to major in STEM subjects for the very sensible reason that they have more options.
But this “choice” is also influenced by the prospect of discrimination down the line.
‘Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you?’
In a study by Girl Scouts of the USA (“Generation STEM”), 57 percent of all girls say that “if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African-American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from “Generation STEM”: “Half of African American girls (compared to 38 percent of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: ‘Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.’ ”)
Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking at best, and lying at worst. The leaky pipeline leads into a leaky bucket that any sane person might choose to avoid.
Of course, we want to fix this — not just give up. That first requires tackling how we talk, then integrating technology and engineering in the appropriate ways at the earliest grade levels possible.
Many schools have found success in helping more girls through STEM courses. We know what works: role models, mentors, encouragement and special opportunities. But schools can do more to make STEM courses more accessible for all students.
Introduce real-world topics, real research, real projects, real tools and tangible technology to STEM subjects. That attracts not only girls but any students who are uninterested in dry textbook science.
Change the Curriculum to Expand Experience
Girls say that science is interesting because it helps people and makes the world a better place. Feed that passion by giving students opportunities to do science that matters, not just study about science.
Finding ways to incorporate conductive paint and e-textiles into an electronics lesson is not pandering to girls but expanding the onboarding experience for STEM to more students across the board.
The facts about gender discrimination are depressing, but that isn’t a reason to hide them from young people. They deserve to know the truth (at the appropriate level). Because guess who can fix it? They can. Girls and boys are our only hope if we’re to change the landscape of opportunity, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.
These problems won’t be fixed by pumping more water into a leaky bucket; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work together to solve them.
While changing deeply embedded culture and established curriculum may seem like an impossible challenge, it’s something that simply has to be done.
Here’s what you can do:
- Be mindful of your own behavior and try to open learning invitations to all students. In particular, talk with young people about stereotypes and how to overcome them.
- Address issues of discrimination in your own settings, quickly and fairly. What you do as the adult in the classroom, and in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge and office, matters.
- Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think?
- Offer experiences in STEM courses that build on student interests and culture. Find ways to use STEM to solve real problems that young people care about.
- Don’t talk only to girls about these issues. It’s not a “girls’ problem.” Enlist boys and men in making changes. Use resources like “Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts” from the National Council on Women & Information Technology and adapt for your own setting.