Inspire Change: Easing ‘Girls in STEM’ into the Roles of ‘Women in STEM’

There are many reasons for students to think about a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Perks such as job security, high salaries, and the possibility of innovation are all things to consider when prospective students seek a career in one of the STEM fields.

Jobs in the STEM fields are among the most in-demand and highest paying, but these types of openings often go unfilled for longer periods of time in comparison to non-STEM jobs. According to a Brooking’s study, the median duration of advertising for a STEM vacancy is more than twice as long as for a non-STEM vacancy. This indicates that the skills critical for working in STEM are low in supply, but highly sought after.

So if STEM is such a hotbed of potential, why are there not more men and women attempting to break into these fields? One major factor that may explain this discrepancy is the glaring underrepresentation of females in STEM fields. Women who attempt to pursue careers in STEM are often faced with a multitude of issues, extending from the mere fact that they are female, that hinders or discourages career advancement. There is, consequently, an untapped group of women, as well as a new generation of young women, who would otherwise be interested in seeking those careers, but are taught that STEM is for “boys only”.

According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, women make up 50 percent of the entire labor pool, yet they only hold 25-30 percent of STEM jobs in the United States. This underrepresentation of women proves to be socially relevant, as it demonstrates that the fields of study within STEM are still largely divisive and exclusively gendered to favor men.

Current women who work in STEM face many problems that help account for the overarching gap in female representation within these fields. One potential issue is workplace hostility or discomfort, which can strongly impact perceived levels of work enjoyability. Evidence of this ongoing problem is supported by the research findings of a three-year study done by Nadya Fouad, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Fouad and her colleagues surveyed more than 5,000 women who had graduated with engineering degrees from some of the top universities within the last six decades. They found that 40 percent of the women surveyed had either quit their jobs or never entered their engineering professions at all.

According to Fouad, the gender gaps have less to do about confidence, and more to do with the unaccommodating climate of the workplace.

“We found that even women who are staying consider leaving because they don’t have supervisor support. They don’t have training and development opportunities. And their colleagues are uncivil to them, belittle them, talk behind their backs and undermine them,” said Fouad.

Yet, in elementary, middle and high school, the gender distribution of total students enrolled in science and mathematics classes is roughly even. Despite a relatively equal playing field to start off in, men, by far, dominate as the majority of those in careers related to STEM. This divergence visibly occurs at the college level, where only a small percentage of women attempt to pursue STEM-related undergraduate degrees. Female representation declines even more at the graduate level.

For whatever reason, it appears that girls are seemingly more likely than boys to fall away or lose interest with STEM. To remedy the issue, it is argued that it is crucial for educators and parents to encourage young girls to maintain interest in STEM by consistently showing them positive role models and providing broader opportunities to learn the skills that are necessary in the STEM fields.

The necessity of teaching today’s youth to develop the types of skills utilized in STEM has also been reiterated by President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly expressed the belief that the future of America heavily depends on the strength of the current education system to instill the new generations of students with the kind of critical thinking abilities that are an absolute necessity in STEM professions.

As the pressure to change the way women are viewed and treated in the STEM fields mounts, there has been a greater push for more initiatives that empower girls to participate and engage in learning about STEM. From engagement campaigns like Million Women Mentors that call for corporations, government entities and higher education groups to put more emphasis on mentoring young girls, to an entire video series dedicated to highlighting the accomplishments of various women in their STEM roles, there are many people currently working in STEM who are choosing to rally together to shed light on the gender issues within the STEM community.

These collective efforts, on the part of individuals and corporations alike, show that change starts from within. In this case, change starts by allowing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to be accessible to all, regardless of gender.

Who are the mentors in your STEM community? What do they do that helps encourage both boys and girls to study STEM? Answer in the comments below.

 

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