While women make up approximately half of the overall workforce, they make up less than a quarter of STEM workers. It’s a pattern that begins much earlier than college or even high school.
The early gender divide
Research on students’ self-efficacy in math and science subjects shows a startling reality: girls and boys begin developing gender stereotypes and self-selecting out of these subjects as early as second grade. By the time girls reach high school, they make up only 25 percent of students pursuing science and engineering pathways. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2015 women earned fewer than 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering.
Childhood experiences matter
What these startling statistics tell us is that the biggest threat to gender diversity in STEM disciplines is not lack of interest, but rather self-selection out due to a lack of early, engaging experiences. To address this and engage more high-school-aged girls in STEM, we must provide formal and informal STEM educational experiences as early as kindergarten, continuing all the way through high school. Girls who have early exposure to high-quality, relevant STEM experiences build confidence and begin to see themselves as scientists and engineers. This is especially important for girls who may not traditionally consider earning a college degree, much less a degree in engineering or science.
A critical component of this solution is providing teachers with the training and ongoing support to effectively facilitate these experiences. Quality professional development for early childhood educators should include the building of content knowledge within the STEM disciplines, training around how to serve as a facilitator of project- and problem-based learning experiences, and support and training to help students gain in-demand transportable skills such as communication, creative problem-solving and collaboration.
The role of parents
Parents play a critical role addressing this issue, but they don’t need a background in science or engineering to do so. They simply need to believe their daughters can become scientists, engineers and computer scientists. They can build confidence and provide support as their girls form opinions about who they are and who they want to become. Parents can also advocate for early STEM education in their schools.
With earlier experiences in STEM subjects, as well as the support of educators and parents, we can address the gender divide and make real improvements in the number of girls who are interested in pursuing STEM-related careers.