Fewer women than men have careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. In this day and age, it still shocks me, though the cause and effect are clear.
Historically girls from a young age have been less encouraged in and exposed to STEM opportunities. It sounds outrageous, but it’s not. In the US, studies show that preschool girls are pushed toward dolls and cooking toys while the same age boys are given building toys and science kits. So, the net result is fewer girls and women interested in STEM in later years.
Girls Will Be Girls
In fact, young girls do want to be girls and do girl-things, just as young boys want to be boys and do boy-things. And, sadly, STEM toys, STEM subjects and STEM careers have been pushed into boy territory for many. Some might say this whole problem is a branding issue, but I see it as much more than that. There are deep-seated ideals that need to be unwound and reformed. The perception that STEM is for boys must change and at as early an age as possible, if we want any hope of impacting the STEM pipeline. As early as middle school, we begin to see that children’s opinions are set and even career interests are already decided and directed. And, that’s not likely to change.
Another obstacle in building the STEM pipeline is the lack of female mentors. Girls look up and see the current roles and careers of women they know or come across in the course of their lives, and they understand that they can take on those roles, too. With fewer women already in STEM careers, acting as STEM role models and mentors, exposure to these opportunities remains hidden to many girls. To change this, we need to actively promote women having impact in STEM careers through familiar and accessible channels. Increased exposure to women in STEM careers underscores the possibility of that future for each girl who encounters those women.
Doing Our Part
We are all responsible for resolving this imbalance. It cannot be left up solely to parents, educators or administrators. In my new novel, Fashion Figures: How Missy the Mathlete Made the Cut, I use storytelling to show the struggles of one middle school-aged girl who loves math and science. My young heroine feels pressured to dumb down her skills in order to focus on “girl” stuff and to avoid being called a geek. With the support of her family and close friends, Missy discovers she can follow her heart’s desires including STEM activities in order to achieve her dreams.
We all have a role to play, from telling our own stories and sharing our crooked paths to our current roles to enabling safe exploration of STEM subjects and career options to finding new ways to teach challenging subjects to accommodate the needs of multiple learning styles.
The Roadmap – PICK ME
I have a solution, a roadmap to improve gender diversity in the STEM pipeline; I call it PICK-ME, and everyone can play a role.
P – Perceptions must change. STEM for all means associating girl-type attributes like collaboration and helpfulness and others with STEM subjects.
I – Inviting environments should be created so STEM becomes open and available to multiple learning styles.
C – Cultivate curiosity at all ages.
K – Keep at it. This effort is enormous and requires perseverance through adversity.
M – More women mentors and role models in STEM must pull up girls and boys and steer their interest in STEM.
E – Expose and encourage girls and boys to explore STEM subjects and careers from preschool through college.
PICK-ME doesn’t force anyone down a specific path. It is an approach that reveals STEM opportunities and opens doors that might otherwise remain closed.
From birth, all human beings are curious about the world they inhabit. Children explore and find inspiration in all that surrounds them. Studies show the more we foster and cultivate children’s natural curiosity with intent, fun, and purpose, the more they learn and grow to demonstrate critical and creative thinking, problem solving, innovation and invention. Certainly, these skills support many fields, and especially those in STEM. And, it’s OK for all children to find and follow their hearts’ desires. What’s not OK is to have complete fields of study and career opportunities unavailable to them. With more contributions in STEM careers by both men and women working together, better solutions to complex problems can be uncovered, new and better products can be invented, and greater financial gains can be made as well. (We’ll save the pay equity discussion for another day.)
With the PICK-ME approach, not all girls (or boys!) will end up in software development, mechanical engineering, or working as financial actuaries or pursuing other STEM careers, but more WILL — and won’t that be awesome?
Open the doors to STEM for the young girls in your life! Buy her a copy of Fashion Figures: How Missy the Mathlete Made the Cut on Amazon today!
Resources & References
“STEM Occupations: Past, Present, And Future” by Stella Fayer, Alan Lacey, and Audrey Watson, Jan 2017 https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2017/science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future/pdf/science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future.pdf
“Women In Science, Technology, Engineering, And Mathematics (STEM)” by Catalyst, Dec 2016 http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem
“Women in architecture and engineering occupations in 2016” Mar 2017 https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/women-in-architecture-and-engineering-occupations-in-2016.htm
“Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation” by David Beede, Tiffany Julian, David Langdon, George McKittrick, Beethika Khan, and Mark Doms, Office of the Chief Economist, Aug 2011 http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/womeninstemagaptoinnovation8311.pdf