Last week, we celebrated International Women’s Day, and March is Women’s History Month. There are some great conversations going on about the amazing women who are breaking barriers and helping to empower other girls and women. It’s also a great time to think about ways to engage more women in male-dominated fields, like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). There’s a massive gender gap in these fields, and these jobs are some of the highest-paying careers available today—only widening the pay gap between men and women.
Research reveals that girls perceive certain fields, like computer science, engineering, and physics, as “masculine”, which discourages them from taking an interest in these courses in high school. They can’t see themselves in a STEM role, so they don’t pursue these careers and interests during adulthood. Though women make up 50% of the population and 47% of the US workforce, women hold just 24% of jobs in the STEM workforce. That’s a big gap that isn’t showing signs of closing.
The biggest problem? All these perceptions start early—when girls are still forming their impressions and opinions of the world. While we may not see how subtle messages about gender and work culture affect girls’ confidence and interest in these fields, they can have a big negative impact and prevent many girls from pursuing STEM careers.
The solution starts in the classroom.
Education: Changing the Face of STEM
Educators have the incredible ability and responsibility to help change the landscape of STEM fields for generations to come. By getting more girls involved and interested in STEM, these fields will start to seem more attractive and attainable for other girls—and they will be perceived as less masculine. They’ll be able to see themselves in a STEM career, and have more role models to look up to.
Here are 5 ways you can help bridge the gap—by piquing the interest of your female students in male-dominated STEM fields and helping to change perceptions of these professions as “masculine”.
- Assume interest, and Be Inclusive
Both men and women enforce gender stereotypes about math and science in children from a young age, though most people don’t realize they’re doing it. Researcher Alicia Chang and her colleagues found that by kindergarten, boys are more willing to learn math skills, and are more confident doing so.
Through their research, Chang discovered that mothers speak to boys two to three times as often about numerical values and quantities than to girls. This trend shows that what we say and how we say it affects children even before they enter school.
Educators must work to offset this by building an inclusive environment in the classroom. Assume that the girls in your class are interested in STEM topics, and be sure to use inclusive language with all your students. Make STEM activities fun, and make sure everyone gets a chance to participate. Encourage girls to take the lead!
- Offer Resources, Workshops and Special Events
Even if you don’t have a large budget for extras, there are lots of free resources out there to help get girls excited about STEM. Coding games and apps, engineering and robotics challenges—there are resources for every age range, and many of these activities don’t need much more than a few simple materials.
Consider hosting a workshop or special event like Hour of Code, a worldwide event typically held during Computer Science Education Week. There are many different organizations that focus on helping to encourage girls in STEM, and you may be able to organize workshops, clubs, and other events just for girls. These events are important, because they allow girls to explore these subjects with confidence and encouragement from teachers and peers.
- Establish Peer Mentoring
If there are any older girls in your school who are actively pursuing STEM fields, try establishing peer mentoring with younger students. According to Girls Who Code, 74% of middle school girls are interested in STEM, but only 0.4% go on to choose computer science as a major in college. One of the reasons has to do with how isolating the field can be for women. Establishing peer mentoring early can help reduce feelings of isolation and exclusion, providing the momentum and inspiration young girls need to follow their passions.
Bringing in women who work in STEM fields as guest speakers can also be a great way to inspire students. They’ll get to see examples of real women making a difference in their fields and have someone to look up to as they move through school.
- Ensure Access to the Arts
It may seem counterintuitive to talk about the arts while we try to encourage girls to engage with STEM fields, but arts and sciences are deeply interconnected. Not only do girls need a well-rounded education to succeed, but developing both sides of the brain helps to make girls more innovative and creative in their problem-solving. Students who study the arts also see improvement in academic performance—these students are four times more likely to earn recognition for their academic excellence.
The arts are so important in developing the STEM leaders of the future that many educators are using a new acronym: STEAM, which add the arts as an essential part of STEM curriculum.
- Celebrate by Showcasing STEM Role Models
One of the problems with engaging girls in STEM fields is that there aren’t always role models they can look up to in their fields of interest. If you look back in history, however, there are so many innovative women who defied all odds and made incredible strides in science and technology. Some examples for your students might include:
- Ada Lovelace, algorithm and programming pioneer.
- Marie Curie, physicist and chemist who researched radioactivity.
- Grace Hopper, pioneer of the COBOL programming language, and early programmer of the Harvard Mark I computer. Invented the first compiler for programming.
- Jean Bartik, programmer on the first computer, the ENIAC.
- Chien-Shiung Wu, nuclear physicist: “The First Lady of Physics”.
- Mae Jemison, NASA astronaut, engineer, and physician.
Celebrate incredible women like these all month, and indeed all year — and show your students that one day, they too could be celebrated innovators!
Don’t Get Discouraged
Don’t give up on bridging the gender gap. It can take some time for girls to explore STEM and see if it’s something they’re interested in. As an educator, you have to walk a fine line between encouragement and pushing. Some girls are interested in STEM; some aren’t. Others might need a dose of inspiration and excitement to build up momentum—and those moments are among the most rewarding experiences you can have in bridging the gender gap. Don’t get discouraged—together, we can bring more girls and women into STEM fields and make our world more innovative and equal.