By Joycelyn Tate, Managing Director, Tate Strategies
There is no better time for women to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers than now. Workforce projections for 2018 show that STEM jobs are expected to grow by 17% from 2008 to 2018, while non-STEM jobs are expected to grow by 9.8%. The supply of new workers in the STEM fields is struggling to keep up with demand, but women remain severely underrepresented in STEM jobs. Barriers to women’s progress in STEM begin during their K-12 education and continue through their college education. Negative stereotypical messages like, “it’s not important for girls to be good at math”, “girls who are smart in science and math aren’t popular” and “science and math are for boys not girls” have overshadowed girls’ and women’s learning in math and science for generations. But, there are ways to overcome the barriers and stereotypes girls and women face in STEM education at both the K-12 and higher education levels. Here are five of them:
1. Introduce STEM toys to girls
An ideal way to introduce STEM skills to girls early in lives is with toys designed specifically to increase their learning in STEM. Store shelves are filling up with toys designed for girls that teach them the basics of STEM. Letting girls learn while they play, with simple toys like toddler building blocks to building Ferris wheels and programmable robots, will spark their interests in STEM at an early age.
2. Encourage girls early in their lives to participate in STEM programs and workshops
Programs and school curricula that focus on encouraging girls to develop and maintain an interest in the STEM fields are sprouting up around the country. Some of these programs and curricula are designed for girls as early as kindergarten. These in-school and out-of-school programs offer girls everything from female STEM professionals as role models and mentors to coding and robotics camps to chemistry labs. If these types of programs are not available at your local school or community–start one. You can start by contacting the STEM departments of your local government, college or business about creating a partnership with your local school or community group to develop volunteer STEM workshops or mentorship programs for girls. Encouraging girls to participate in these programs at early ages and throughout their school years will help to build their confidence in pursuing STEM education and careers.
3. Require college STEM faculty to mentor women pursuing STEM degrees
Some of the reasons cited by female college students for why they abandon their pursuits of STEM degrees are the absence of mentors and support on campus. College administrators of STEM departments should require STEM faculty to mentor female students as part of their faculty service. STEM administrators and faculty should also encourage female students to form student-lead organizations within their departments that promote and foster the professional growth and development of women in STEM and build comradery among the female students. Student-led professional networking organizations, intramural sports activities and community service organizations are a great way to start.
4. Develop student-to-student mentorship or buddy programs on college campuses
College administrators and students can work together to help female students have positive experiences while pursuing STEM degrees. One way to do this is by creating learning communities where incoming female students pursuing STEM degrees are placed in residence halls with upper-level female STEM majors who serve as mentors or buddies. This would help incoming students to find support and navigate the “rules of the road” in their STEM programs.
5. Create learning environments that foster inclusiveness for female students in STEM
Female students in college-level STEM courses and programs report being excluded from study groups, having difficulty finding study partners and being assigned fewer task in group projects based on assumptions of incompetence. In order for women and to thrive and excel in STEM, college and K-12 administrators must make it unequivocally clear to students, faculty and staff that gender bias and hostility will not be tolerated. They must also promptly address and rectify such behavior if it occurs.