The Christmas season, a joyous time of cheer, Christmas movies that have been passed along from generation to generation and reuniting with family and friends. Children everywhere looking forward to their presents under the tree. I’m sure you remember anticipating those gifts. What could it be? Perhaps it was a new doll, or a truck, mystery date, or your favorite album, just as long as it was not clothes. The traditional toys have been roughly the same for decades. However, there’s a new trend this Christmas: STEM toys, especially for girls. From skydiving action figures, to engineering, to receiving a box of cool experiments and concepts to your door every month, and more. These toys are encouraging young girls to get involved in STEM and generate interest for their potential future careers in Science Engineering Technology and Math. The emergence of the popularity of these toys very much reflects a new overall trend: get women (and kids) in to STEM.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up almost 50% of the total U.S. workforce, but only comprise 39% of chemists and material scientists, 28% of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 16% of chemical engineers and 12% of civil engineers. Even worse, STEM career retention for women declines during their first twelve years on the job, compared to only 20% of women in non-STEM fields. STEM jobs are growing at a rate of 1.7 times that of of non-STEM jobs, yet there’s a decline in interest. With the need to find jobs and the knowledge that very low numbers of the workforce are on track to fill them, women and industries have been rising up to make a difference. The lack of women in STEM has lead to a revolution and it’s not just among young adults, but also kids. These low numbers highlight a present problem. However, to understand the solution, the problem must first be identified. While each individual experiences a wide degree of influencing factors, studies have show that many factors can be negative and lead to discouraging women and girls.
Interesting findings support the notion that female teachers may play a part in influencing a girl’s pursuit of STEM. That’s right, female teachers. A study of Israeli students was conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). This study followed a group of students from grade six through the end of high school to measure a teacher’s gender bias. These teachers were all female and asked to grade students in areas of English, Hebrew and mathematics. The results of English and Hebrew tests showed no significant difference between males and females. However, there was a difference when grading mathematics. When the teachers did not know the gender of the tester, the girls outscored the boys in math, however, when the teacher was aware, the boys scored higher. Over time, the lower test scores for girls may have had an impact on their confidence and thus led to boys more likely to enroll in higher level mathematics in high school than the girls. A 2010 study found that young girls may have their confidence impacted by female teachers who also lack confidence in their mathematical abilities. Even as girls grow older, a Yale study found that both male and female university faculty in American schools looked more favorably on males as competent and capable despite having the same accomplishments or skills.
Regina Moran, CEO of Fujitsu UK & Ireland, noted in an interview that her company is making large strides to increase the number of women in the workforce at every level. However, she notes that what concerns her most is encouraging young schoolchildren to invest time and intellectual curiosity in technology, engineering and the sciences. The best way to achieve this, she believes is “through role models, through pay/opportunities, and through encouragement.” Her assertions reinforce the earlier mentioned studies, which concluded that students can be discouraged in pursuing STEM careers based a lack of encouragement and opportunities. As the future points towards a deeper role digitalization will play in a company’s operations, a prominent trend Moran also notes in her interview, and with the skills gap widening across an array of industries, something needs to change.
What Can Be Done?
Not many seem to have the answer which is why recruiting females has been often divided in to two categories:”geek pride” and “sparkle science.” Although being a so-called “geek” refers to someone passionate and is adopting a cool side, it still holds a very negative connotation for females. A Stanford study looking at emphasizing geek stereotypes and its effect on females found that being too stereotypically geeky had women opting out more often than not. Even adding pink colors to building blocks and throwing in a princess or two had a negative effect, where girls saw being feminine and efficient in STEM as unattainable. To pink or not to pink, it is difficult to decide which is why it is important to not select a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather try everything.
Despite the wide array of messages, recruitment attempts and negative influences, there is hope for girls and younger generations. Regina Moran had a valid point in championing encouragement. Girls have to see the possibilities and believe that they can be equally as capable. The best way to do so is through mentoring. Welson Rossman, head of marketing at Chariot Solutions says that the key to recruiting women is having “more companies, leaders, media, parents, teachers, girls and women understand the importance of training, teaching, encouraging and supporting girls and women in all aspects of innovation and technology.” Studies, including the Israeli study, have found that parents and other adults have the power to wipe out the harmful messages of doubt and empower the youth to believe that they are capable of succeeding in any of the STEM fields. Alicia Syrett, the founder and CEO of Pantegrion Capital, says that change will come when we “call out industry panels and conferences which don’t include enough women, hold organizations accountable in addressing biases and discrimination, and demand transparency and change on issues like paid leave, equal pay, and representation on boards.”
These women willing to call out the inadequacies and pass along their knowledge and encouragement are doing so right now. The U.S. Patent Director, Michelle K. Lee, launched the “All in STEM” initiative “to get more girls interested in STEM and encourage more women to pursue and flourish in STEM careers.” Million Women Mentors (MWM) is “a collaborative effort between 60 national partners to provide over 30 million girls and women worldwide with STEM mentors.” MWM strives to gain one million male and female mentors in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to increase the interest of girls and women to feel confident in pursuing and succeeding in STEM programs and careers. In a partnership with STEMconnector®, there are currently 532,129 pledges to this moment (perhaps even more now). STEMconnector® brings together of a network of “companies, nonprofit associations and professional societies, STEM-related research & policy organizations, government entities, universities and academic institutions” dedicated to the advancement of “all things STEM” through a comprehensive website that connects national, state and local STEM entities.
Girls Who Code has also made and continues to make great advancements in reaching girls, including a book series, a mobile game and partnering with Ford. Girl Day is a day to celebrate engineering, where girls can learn more about the field from female engineers. Role models are great ways to discourage doubt and highlight the possibilities in students. Take, for example, Susan Warner of MasterCard. Susan was an English Literature major who always enjoyed mathematics, but did not pursue it for a lack of role models and opportunities in her small town. However, when Rear Admiral and computer pioneer Grace Hopper spoke at her graduation, she knew she would have a future in the STEM field. Now she writes about STEM daily and, as a result of her passion, founded Girls4Tech™(G4T), a hands-on, inquiry based learning experience to showcase the MasterCard technology and calls its employees forward to act as mentors. Since its creation, G4F has reached 1,800 girls and engaged over 600 employees. Susan has seen girls from all over the world participate and, no matter their origin, still show the same enthusiasm towards the technology activities. Recently, the Girl Scouts of Orange County introduced the My STEM Life badge, aimed at encouraging young girls to take an interest. Girl Scouts of America continues to encourage STEM, through its blog, one of its entries encouraging coding as a fun and educational way to rock winter break.
STEM fields go beyond mathematics and science to include, and often require, creativity. Jenni Buckley, Ph.D.,assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware says that the message she conveys to younger audiences is that “engineers are problem-solvers, and they’re working on these really important issues that we’re working on as a society. You can save lives, you can have an impact on a lot of people in healthcare as an engineer.” STEM is a life-changing field that not only changes lives of the professionals, but also the lives of everyone its touches. STEM has a lot to offer. It is a challenging field that will continue to grow in the future. As technology evolves, together with 3d printing, manufacturing and the ways of the future, every industry will have at least some STEM influence. This influence will revolutionize the way business functions. The questions now is, are you ready to help make it happen?
STEM Role Models:
Olivia Hallisey -Winner of the Google Science Fair
Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper – Programmed the first computers
Dr. Patricia Bath – Physician And Inventor
Marie Curie – The first scientist to win the Nobel Prize twice and considered the greatest female scientist
Elizabeth Blackwell – First women in America to receive a medical degree