Encouraging Girls in STEM field

Why and How to encourage Girls in STEM field

Why and How to encourage Girls in STEM field

Image Source: http://xkcd.com/385/

The development of world-class talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is critical to growth of a nation and its leadership in the world. Since 9 or the top 10 fastest growing jobs are being created in STEM fields, encouraging women to explore these fields is important for their financial security and economic growth of the nation.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of workers in STEM fields. Half as many women are working in STEM jobs as would be expected if gender representation in STEM professions mirrored the overall workforce. This underrepresentation has remained fairly consistent over the past decade, even as women’s share of the college-educated workforce has increased. Among STEM jobs, women’s representation has varied over time. While the percentage of women has declined in computer and math jobs, their percentage has risen in other occupations. In 2009, women comprised 27 percent of the computer and math workforce (the largest of the four STEM components), a drop of 3 percentage points since 2000. Engineers are the second largest STEM occupational group, but only about one out of every seven engineers is female.[1]

It is important to understand and analyze this data and identify reasons and possible solution to improve this situation. There are multiple reasons for such under-representation of women in the STEM and most of them are endemic to our society and environment and negatively influence women’s participation of STEM starting at a very young age.

•At Home – Since a very young age, parents/ grandparents unintentionally, choose toys, gifts that differentiate the kinds of activities girls will be engaged in. Toys made for girls reinforce rigid, highly gendered stereotypes that encourage only boys to build or engineer.

•At School/ Work – At almost every step of the education career, we see lower and lower percentage of girls in STEM. By seventh grade, most girls have lost interest in these fields, and few high school girls plan to pursue STEM in college. Those who do are generally a minority in their programs and don’t find much support required for success. The few strong and smart that graduate to the work environment face further discrimination from a workforce that has been historically unfriendly to women. Stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of academic departments and workplaces continue to block women’s participation and progress.

•Media – Media also plays an important role in shaping the views of the society and women themselves. Women are shown not as Engineers or Scientists, but as models who are beautiful and well maintained. Since a very young age girls are exposed to stereotypes that imprint how a girl should look, behave and work. These biases continue to influence what we do or what we want to do in life.

We need to change this situation completely and provide women the same playing field that is unbiased and promotes innovation and problem solving. Most of the new jobs are being created in the field of STEM and hence it becomes even more important for us to encourage the young minds to get exposure to the field, so that they have the option to make the right career decision (when time is appropriate).

Few actions that can be done to improve this situation –

•Parents/ Family – Provide exposure and encourage girls towards science. We need to provide toys that help them bring creative energy to fun, problem-solving projects in the classroom and after school. It is difficult especially because the entire toy industry gives a few options to make the right choices. But, being aware of the situation can tremendously help to explore further and give the one right gift to your young one. Goldieblox and a few other brands have come up that have toys for girls that encourage problem solving.

•Schools/ Work – Understand the biases in schools and workplace and provide a consistent equitable experience/ opportunities. At School, parents who are in STEM careers can come and speak to children about their experiences and engage in fun STEM related activities. There’s a program called DIGITS, where engineers go into classrooms with very young students and talk about their work and also share examples from the world of STEM in an easily relatable way—based on a child’s name. For example, if your name is Anna, A is for aerospace, so let’s talk about space ships in outer space. At work, changes are required to create a level playing field, so that we are not forcing the good talent out of the workforce. Enough has been said about the best practices for women in workforce and I will not rehash that discussion here.

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.” — President Barack Obama, February 2013

•Media – Media has a key role in shaping attitudes across the society. It needs to be more responsible and take steps in reducing stereotypes about STEM careers. Bringing the right role models to talk shows, having programs to alleviate stereotypes are a few things that it can work on. Cosmos – by Neil-degrasse-Tyson is one such example that comes to mind of an interesting way to engage the young minds in the wonders of Universe and Science.

Last but not the least, acceptance of the fact that, we as a society, are not doing something right, will drive thought and action to proactively encouraging our girls in staying competitive and economically self-sustainable by picking careers in STEM and other non-traditional fields for girls. What I am asking is not preferential treatment, but equal treatment, so that we don’t differentiate and negatively influence a girl’s perception of her and the society, so that she can make the unbiased right choice for herself.

[1] Beede, David, Tiffany Julian, David Langdon, George McKittrick, Beethika Khan, and Mark Doms. U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administrations. www.esa.doc.gov. “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation”, 2009.

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