top of page

Girls are the Future of STEM

Updated: Feb 27

A look at some of the factors that contribute to the gender gap in STEM and current initiatives to encourage and empower young girls



Draw a scientist. What image comes first to your mind? It’s very likely that you are picturing a  person in a white lab coat, perhaps with glasses. Is it a woman or a man? Old or young? 


This “draw a scientist” test gives an idea of the beliefs and stereotypes that children hold about scientists. It was first conducted on more than four thousand primary school students from three countries in 1983, and their drawings often depicted white, middle-aged male with lab coats, glasses, and facial hair working indoors under sometimes dangerous or secretive conditions. The test in classrooms in the early 2000 and 2010s showed similar remarks. We begin to develop stereotypes and beliefs from a very early age and it’s hard to be what you can't see. 


The gender gap in STEM has been widely recognised. Researchers point to these persisting gender-bias stereotypes and attitudes, gender gaps in education pathways, and limiting access, preparation, and career opportunities for females as the main causes of this difference.


Women only make up to 34% of those fields, according to a recent study published by the National Girls Collaborative Project. Other data offer a positive glance into the future of STEM: the number of women working in STEM positions grew at a faster rate than men over the past decade. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of women in the STEM workforce increased 31% compared to a 15% increase of men. While the gender gap is closing as the overall percentage of women in STEM grows, the representation varies widely across these occupations. Women earn a majority of bachelor’s degrees in social science and life science (ie. psychology, biology, agriculture) but there is a relatively low share of women who major, graduate and later work in engineering, computer science, math and physics. The proportion of women sharply declines in higher ranks and leadership positions, both in the academic and corporate worlds. These challenges deeply affect women of color and minorities, and Black and Hipanic women remain highly underrepresented in STEM positions in the U.S.


Many studies, organizations and agencies have clear what needs to improve: focusing on girls and young women now is a strategic investment for the future of the STEM workforce. For that, we need to implement better support in STEM early education for girls; attract, recruit and retain women into STEM majors and fields in colleges and universities; exposure to role models, boost connections and networking; improve job hiring, retention and promotion pathways and intentionally inclusive work cultures. Translating the theory to concrete action shouldn’t be that challenging. 


With the help of experts, we go over some of the aspects that cause the disparities mentioned above and learn about current initiatives that are contributing to closing those gaps.


 

In general, boys and girls in primary up to K-12 perform equally well in mathematics and science, and both show interest in STEM and participate in advanced STEM courses at high rates. However, gender disparities begin to emerge in higher levels of the education system. According to the Student Research Foundation, only 28% of young female high school seniors report to aspire to a STEM career compared to 65% of male


This lack of interest may be a product of a discouraging classroom environment combined with internalized norms about their own capabilities and aptitudes. “There are cultural beliefs about science as difficult, and unfortunately, women and girls are still seen as less capable”, clinical psychologist and executive coach Dr. Anne Welsh points out. She remarks that girls will often back away for reasons of feeling inadequate. External support and encouragement is key, and teachers, parents and peers can often be very dissuasive. 


Erica Willie, founder of The ScienceSIS, still remembers when her high school teacher told her that if she wasn’t excellent at math she couldn’t be an engineer. “He never expounded on his thoughts or reasoning and it left me feeling isolated. I pushed harder and remembered his words as I graduated with my degree in Computer Science”, Willie confesses. 


Another factor at play in terms of the drop off of STEM interests is that when teenagers develop their identity, girls often encounter that they have to choose between STEM or being feminine. They don’t believe that being smart is compatible with being cool nor sexy so they step out. “Even where they may have avoided gender stereotypes at home and as children, they may shy away from those interests in order to "fit in" with others who hold them”, according to Dr. Anne Welsh. 


STEM jobs are often considered non-collaborative and very competitive, which may not align with the values of many female students. They might start to wonder if they can have a demanding job in STEM and have a partner, children, and overall, a good work-life balance. The perception that this is what the reality of a person working in STEM is like usually steers many girls away and makes many women step out. Is this situation accurate?


“I don’t think society believes that I could be a ‘hard scientist’ and a mother, and have hobbies”, says Dr. Geillan Aly, a mathematics educator and founder of Compassionate Math. She acknowledges that the expectation for productivity in STEM corporations and ferocity of groundbreaking research in academia are unsustainably high, and on top of that women are  expected to carry many other burdens; norms that are still very ingrained in society. She believes that a woman can be a scientist, mathematician, or engineer, and also be a mother, have hobbies and a work-life balance. She is, indeed. She highlights the importance of exposing diverse realities of women in STEM to young girls to change this poor perception.


“If the picture of an engineer in a girl's mind is a man and that girl has never seen or interacted with a female engineer, then that girl may not consider being an engineer a possibility for girls”.


Like Dr. Geillan Aly, Dr. Anne Welsh, Erica Willie and many other experts, agree on the importance of creating safe spaces for female students where they are supported, and creating opportunities to know and connect with female role models in STEM. This applies to all levels of education and steps in the career ladder, both in academia and corporations.


Initiatives to encourage girls and connect with women in STEM

Carolyn He attends a STEM program at her high school in New Jersey, where out of 48 students, only 17 are girls. She notes that although there are not noticeable sexist attitudes in her program, she still missed talking and connecting to like-minded girls. That was her initial motivation to become an Ambassador for the non-profit organization Women in STEM (WiSTEM). “I was hoping that through my participation in WiSTEM, I could share that feeling of empowerment with other girls in my school”, she says. From her initial role as Director of Digital Media, she got deeper understanding and experiences within the team and was later chosen as the President of WiSTEM. 


WiSTEM develops and offers different initiatives to tackle the limited opportunities for girls in high school. They pride themselves on being “a social approach to what is a fact-oriented field”, and with a very unique characteristic: everything is student led. They encourage students to create a WiSTEM chapter -like a STEM club for girls-, and they provide support on leadership development, mentorship, and STEM-related experiences. Through their Mentorship Program, high school girls can match with WiSTEM members, that vary from female researchers, professors, educators, or hold a position in a STEM-field company. This year 2024, they received 150 signups from mentees for the first round, and they have recently opened a second round for applications.


Carolyn assures that “forming connections, being able to look for mentors, and in turn becoming mentors for other girls, is what's ultimately going to help women succeed in the STEM field”.


In Spain, Celia Caballero Cardenas and her colleague Irene Gomez Bueno, both PhD in Mathematics by the University of Malaga, launched a Math divulgation project called Divulgando Mates. They organize talks in high schools in the region to inform about the real-life applications of math and they have received very positive feedback from students and teachers.“The fact that two young females who work in academia like us are delivering these talks matters and, as some of the teachers from these high schools have told us, it’s key for girls”, says Celia. She also knows well the importance of growing up with role models and mentors. In her case, she always received great support from teachers and family but she recalls that when considering what to study in college, it was difficult to picture herself as a computer engineer since she didn’t know any women who worked in that field.

Within these terms, inclusivity and diversity in terms of race and ethnicity becomes a major factor. “For BIPOC women like myself, all these challenges are bigger and heavier”, remarks Dr. Geillan Ally.


For years, she worked as an assistant professor of mathematics at an institution. However she felt that there was a disconnect between what they said and how they acted when it came to the treatment of women and people of color. During the pandemic, as educators around the country were facing new challenges in the classrooms, a colleague suggested to Dr. Geillan Aly to conduct professional development and work with teachers. That’s how she found her new place and built Compassionate Math, through which she offers professional development, workshops, and math education consulting. “Learning math is both an emotional and cognitive endeavor, and I work to bring balance by centering the emotional and the affective in order to make way for rigorous mathematics”. This approach resonates a lot with people who have not been traditionally welcomed in math classes, such as women and people of color.


Erica Willie noticed that opportunities were different for mothers, and she found herself hiding the fact that she was a mom. “I was a black woman in STEM and I was a mom working in tech sales. It was the most difficult time in my career.”


She launched The ScienceSIS after becoming a mom of three girls. While she worked in tech, the current denominator was not many people looked like her. She emphasizes that she had a mix of black women and men as mentors during her career, but there were no women of color holding leadership positions, for instance.


With The ScienceSIS she wants to contribute to make it better so that her daughters don't experience the same.


 
Special mention to

Sources

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). (2023). Diversity and STEM:

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities 2023. Special Report NSF 23-315.

National Science Foundation. Available at https://ncses.nsf.gov/wmpd.

Fry, R. (2021, April 1). Stem jobs see uneven progress in increasing gender, racial and ethnic

diversity. Pew Research Center Science & Society.

Kennedy, B. (2021, April 14). 6 facts about America’s STEM workforce and those training for

National Girls Collaborative Project. (2023, February 28). Current State of STEM 2023.

National Girls Collaborative Project. https://ngcproject.org/statistics


Kommentare


bottom of page