Bridging the STEM gender gap

March 16, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Today, although to a lesser degree than in the past, women remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences.

According to a 2016 report by the National Science Foundation, female students’ achievement and participation in science and math in grades K-12 was on par with their male peers, but by college, the rates at which girls enrolled in STEM classes, particularly in science and engineering, drops significantly.

Although research has largely debunked the myths about cognitive difference between boys and girls, societal stereotypes and gender bias still remains, creating a gender gap in STEM. Even though today’s girls can and do excel in STEM-related courses and careers, they aren’t pursuing STEM classes and careers at anywhere near the same rates as their male peers.

Research has shown that the earlier girls are exposed to science and technology, the more likely they’ll pursue a career in such a field.

A woman’s place is…in the garage

For Jasmine VanWormer, a junior enrolled in the Diesel Technology program at the Capital Region BOCES Career and Technical School in Albany, NY, it’s never been about “what’s for girls or what’s for boys,” it’s always been about doing what she loves.

“I grew up working on cars with my dad, and I have always been interested in learning how to take things apart and put them back together. I like figuring out what things do and how they work. That’s just how my mind works,” she said.

VanWormer aspires to work in the field of diesel technology when she graduates next year, hoping to own her own garage one day.

With less than one percent of diesel mechanics in the United States being women, VanWormer is well aware of the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“It kind of comes with the territory. In my classes, I feel like I have to prove myself. I’m fine with it, but it stinks because a guy would never have to do that,” she said.

“I remember this one time we had to take out a camshaft (a very heavy part of a car’s engine), and no one thought I’d be able to do it. I did it. That was fun,” she said with a big grin.

VanWormer’s advice for girls who may want to pursue a career in a male dominated field is to “think like a girl,” she said with another smile. “It has nothing to do with perceptions. It’s about doing what you want to do and being in the mindset that if you want it, go out and get it.”

Sparking an interest

A 2016 survey of over 1,000 members of Women in Technology International (WITI) found that exposure to science and math in grade school helps girls make a stronger connection to technology and helps them develop the confidence to consider careers in STEM.

Brooke McClarren, a high school junior in her third year of taking classes at Hudson Valley Community College’s Tec-Smart Campus in Ballston Spa, NY, aspires to go to college at Carnegie Mellon and join the military to work in cybersecurity, eventually working for the FBI, CIA or Homeland Security.

McClarren credits her interest in coding and computers to her father and being exposed to STEM clubs and courses at a young age.

“When I was younger, probably around five, I can remember taking apart computers with my dad. We would clean them and reassemble them. Then in elementary school I took a PowerPoint basics class and I just adored learning the ins-and-outs of the program. In middle school, I was one of 20 students piloting STEM courses, and in high school I started taking computer programming classes and joined the robotics team. I’ve been really lucky to have these opportunities. Without them, I wouldn’t have found my niche,” she said.

“In my free time I like coding video games, Google coding and learning new coding languages. I do a lot of coding for school, too. Last semester I took a class [HTML5] and this semester I am taking Java college courses. It definitely helps that I like doing [these kind of things] inside and out of school – and I’m confident in my abilities.”

“There aren’t many girls in my classes. At Tec-Smart, there are only three, including me, and in my high school’s cybersecurity class, again I am one of three,” she said.

“I definitely think there’s still career fields that are perceived as either for men or women. Most girls I know want to be teachers, veterinarians or artists, whereas anything with computers, engineering and the other STEM-related jobs are ‘for the boys.’”

“I obviously don’t believe in any of that – and to all the other girls who love computers or coding – I say do what you love and show anyone who gets in your way what you’ve got.”

STEM at home

Both Brooke and Jasmine cite their fathers as helping them spark an interest in STEM at an early age. Andrea Beaty, an author or advocate for girls in STEM and for the global education of girls, shares these tips:

Model the behavior you want to see

Just like children who watch their parents read are more likely to become readers themselves, “the same concept holds true for STEM learning,” says Beaty. “Share your wonder and curiosity about the world to help your daughter become excited about discovery. Make STEM part of your daily conversation. You don’t need a degree in science to follow scientific advances. Just show her that you are interested in these types of topics.”

Look around

Science is all around us. Whether you’re cooking (chemistry), gardening (botany) or taking care of the family pet (zoology), science is a major part of our daily lives. Beaty suggests looking for problem-solving, STEM-related, opportunities to share in with your child. For example, consider how you might keep squirrels off the bird feeder and plan out the scenarios in detail.

Change the dialogue

“We must shift the focus of common conversations we have with girls from how they look to what they do. Asking girls what they make and what interests them challenges them in a positive way,” shares Beaty. Like Jasmine and Brooke, “make your daughters aware of men and women who follow their own paths.”

“Not every girl will grow up to become an astrophysics or mechanical engineer and nor will every boy. We don’t need them to do so, but we give our children a better chance at finding their own path – whatever that might be – if we help them embrace STEM and learning early on in life.”

Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She is the mother to a one-year old son – together they’re exploring the world one wobbly step at a time.

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