Increasing girls’ access to STEM education can narrow the gender gap and strengthen the field.
Achieving gender equity is a complex challenge requiring collaboration from social, political, economic, and educational spheres. What can educators do to push towards a more equitable future for women? One possible solution lies in giving girls a robust STEM education.
A strong foundation in STEM provides girls with a unique skill set that builds their ability to be creative problem solvers. Girls gain access to a broader range of careers, learn to think critically, and are positioned to not only be smart consumers of technological advances but also to be the creators of those advancements. Education can play a significant role in helping to bridge gender equity gaps, but these benefits can only be achieved if we change the current STEM experience for girls at the K-12 school level.
Educators must intentionally work toward disrupting STEM gender norms in classrooms and schools. Routinely providing positive reinforcement, giving agency and voice, and introducing diverse female role models in STEM fields can help build girls’ confidence in STEM classrooms and give them opportunities to see themselves in these disciplines.
A voice for everyone in STEM education
Racial diversity is particularly important given that the numbers of women of color in STEM fields are disproportionately lower than the number of white women. In 2017, women accounted for only 29% of science and engineering professionals, despite making up over 50% of the college-educated workforce. The racial breakdown of women working in STEM careers reveals stark disparities: White and Asian women represent the majority within the female STEM workforce (62% and 20.7%, respectively). Yet, Black women make up 8.6%, Latinas 7.9%, and American Indian/Alaska Native women account for only 0.3%. When comparing these percentages to the racial breakdown of the general female population, it is evident that the gaps are wider for women who are Black, Latina, and American Indian/Alaska Native. Raising awareness of these statistics coupled with the disruption of gender norms in STEM classrooms can serve as a steppingstone toward changing this narrative and increasing representation in these fields.
In order to truly advance and tackle the complex global issues we currently face there must be a diverse set of voices and ideas present to push innovation forward. The benefits of increasing STEM education access to girls are therefore mutually beneficial for girls and for the STEM field. Girls are capable of not only contributing diverse perspectives to the field but also of bringing unique skills. Research shows that although there are no differences in math and science cognitive abilities between girls and boys, there is a significant difference in the capacity for empathy between genders — it’s higher for females. Building empathy is the first step of the design thinking process — one frequently used by engineers and scientists to solve complex problems. What girls contribute to the STEM field goes beyond diversification. They are capable of driving forward progress in STEM fields through their unique gifts.
A brighter future
We are being threatened with some of the most critical problems in history. From climate change to the unprecedented rise of a global pandemic, now is the time when the work of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and others is imperative. Having a diverse set of voices, skills, and perspectives in those fields can assist in finding effective solutions to these problems.
The work of giving girls access to STEM education must endure, and although it’s challenging, the profits are immense. If we dare to dream big, we can build on the efforts of others in the movement toward a world where every girl is born with limitless opportunities to thrive, both as individuals and within their communities.