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
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 Despite this, there is still an outdated culture that fosters the idea that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.”
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outdated stereotypes of scientists as lab-coated nerds with oversized glasses,”
“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
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.”