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Putting Our Daughters Back Into the Equation

Photograph by Getty Images

In 1982 there was a Teen Talk Barbie that whined, "Math class is tough," and just this year, The Children’s Place offered a "My Best Subjects" T-shirt for girls that listed "shopping," "music" and "dancing" but not math, because "nobody's perfect."

Houston, we have a problem.

There is a dearth of women in the science, tech, engineering and math fields. According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, men tend to dominate the tech industry (with women at a mere 25 percent), and our numbers are not growing significantly.

With companies like GoldieBlox capturing media attention their take on girl-friendly science/engineering toys, the spotlight is falling more brightly on girls—and what we can do to get them interested in subjects that seem firmly entrenched in the boys' club.

Why There Aren’t More Women in the STEM Fields

Girls actually earn more math and science credits than boys do, and their GPAs, aggregated across science and math courses, are higher than boys, according to Generation STEM, a report from the Girl Scout Research Institute. Despite this, there is still an outdated culture that fosters the idea that females are not as good, and this belief makes girls question their abilities. Regrettably, this gender bias exists, even among women.

What's going on?

"In male-dominated fields, we (men and women both) have lower expectations of women and rate them lower for the same achievements," says Meg Urry, the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. "There is a large body of social science research demonstrating this problem.”

MORE: 10 Heroic Teachers

Barbara Ruskin, a molecular biologist turned patent lawyer who often works on behalf of life science companies, wants girls to have a better vision of the big picture. “Many girls shy away from studies in STEM because they are intimidated and don’t know much about what it means to be a scientist. Unfortunately, the media continues to foster outdated stereotypes of scientists as lab-coated nerds with oversized glasses,” says Ruskin.

“STEM careers are anything but that," she adds. "Scientists get to work in collaborative teams, often internationally, and have a chance to use the latest high-tech instruments and computers to explore fascinating questions about life and the world we live in.”

Not only that, but working in sciences and mathematics can actually boost a woman's pay grade. "Women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs—considerably higher than the STEM premium for men," according to the Department of Commerce report.

NEXT: What We Can Do to Help

What We Can Do to Help

“Parents can play a very significant role in encouraging girls to persist in science,” says Urry. “Family support and encouragement was probably the single biggest reason I kept going.” But she points out that not everybody has parents who are encouraging, and that is why teachers and professors can also play a key role.

Look for Outreach Programs: Urry praises outreach programs like Yale's Girls' Science Investigations, a free program that introduces girls to the fun of science experiments and learning. While she admits that current evaluations do not provide long-term data on whether these programs keep women in STEM, they are still valuable. And young women must forge connections. “In high school, college and beyond, they should actively seek mentors and network among people in similar situations, which has proved really effective for so many of us.”

Model Positive Behavior: Tamara Hudgins, an executive director of STEM program Girlstart, says that parents must model good behavior around their daughters. “Excise statements from your life like, 'I’m bad/useless at...' Your child will internalize this. Also, when you are talking about new ideas or concepts, try to find 'yes, and…' responses to ideas and questions rather than 'yes, but…' because ['and'] turns on inquiry, instead of shutting it down.”

Encourage Exploration: Nurture your child’s curiosity, because you never know where it will lead. “Mr. Rogers once said, ‘Dig a hole.’ And I agree!" Hudgins says. "Get messy without worrying; take time to look at worms and bugs and soil. Try to find opportunities for asking questions. Hands-on learning makes the concept concrete, rather than abstract.”

Try, Try Again: “Too many people put filters on youth, telling them that they have to be the best to go into STEM. Can you really tell a student that because they got a B or C in math, they can't be an engineer?" asks Dr. Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University and founder of Nerd Girls, a group that strives to inspire women to explore engineering fields. "One of the biggest things engineers do is know all the ways to do things wrong before getting it right; making mistakes is part of design."

Ignore Negativity: Panetta believes that we need to stop telling children that they have to be perfect and encourage them to try again, not give up, and not to listen to anyone's negative input about their potential. “If you don't listen to your heart and don't have the courage to stretch your abilities despite negative comments from others, even if it comes from a teacher or guidance counselor, you won't know what you could have been. Don't let anyone, including yourself, put limits on your dreams.”

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