STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is a term that encompasses a growing number of fields related to those four topics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated upwards of 9 million new STEM careers will open up between 2012 and 2022 — but thus far, men have occupied the majority of those jobs. In 2009, men held more than three-quarters of the STEM jobs in the U.S.
Why is STEM so crucial for girls, and what can we do to encourage more girls to take the step into these careers?
It Needs to Start Early
Kids generally have strong opinions on things — and aren’t shy about sharing them, especially for things they don’t like. They also tend to develop these opinions very early and stick to them — studies have shown young children will decide whether or not they enjoy learning about a subject like science as early as kindergarten, and if they decide they hate it, they’ll carry that opinion with them for years to come.
There is no built-in difference in STEM ability when it comes to boys and girls — and young girls develop their opinions on things like science just as early as boys do. By letting boys focus on STEM projects, but neglecting girls, educators have been unwittingly discouraging girls from seeking out scientific careers. This imbalanced treatment contributes to the gender gap that has emerged in the last decade.
There Aren’t Enough Female Role Models in STEM
There have been accomplished male scientists for boys to look up to for decades. Despite facing barriers, women have also made strides in STEM, but their stories often don’t make it into the history books. As a result, girls who are looking into STEM careers find themselves facing a dearth of female role models. They just don’t have enough people to look up to when they’re trying to envision themselves in science, engineering or math careers.
By helping the current generation of girls focus on STEM, we can mold them into the role models of tomorrow.
Too Many Myths Surrounding Women in STEM
Women in STEM are surrounded by a mythology that can be intimidating and discouraging for young girls who are interested in entering the field. For example, women may believe they must have good grades in math to enter a STEM career — however, there are plenty of STEM-related careers that don’t require more than basic mathematics skills.
There’s also a stereotype that women need to act more masculine to succeed or be taken seriously in these fields. In reality, women in STEM careers can be just as “girly” or feminine as those in any other line of work.
Encouraging Girls in STEM
It’s up to us as parents to encourage our girls to follow their interests, especially if those interests branch out into STEM-related hobbies. But with so many factors working against them, how can we encourage girls to pursue STEM-related careers?
- Encourage them — Children are naturally curious about their environment. Don’t brush off or ignore their questions. Take time to answer them — or, even better, direct them to the resources to find the answers themselves. Books, especially those aimed at kids, can be an invaluable resource to allow kids to discover the answers on their own.
- Take lots of trips — Check out your local museums, aquariums, zoos and other STEM-based attractions. These attractions can help foster their love for science, while keeping them entertained, as well. If you’re planning a road trip, consider including these locations in your travel plans.
- Cater to their interests — Kids are quick to latch on to new hobbies and interests, but can quickly get discouraged if their parents don’t support or encourage them. Cater to their interests whenever you can.
- Encourage them to be skeptical — Tell your children not to believe everything they hear, even if it comes from an adult. Science should come with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s an attitude we can all use in our daily lives. Encourage them to ask questions about everything and anything that crosses their mind.
- Focus on gender-neutral kits or supplies — A lot of science and STEM kits geared toward girls are either pink or extremely feminine. Find gender-neutral learning tools, instead.
Many groundbreaking women have paved the way in STEM. Marie Curie and her daughter Irene were both Nobel laureates who made advances in the study of radioactive isotopes. Ada Lovelace was a pioneering mathematician who wrote what many consider to be the first computer program. Sally Ride was one of the first female astronauts and the first U.S. woman to fly in space. We need to encourage girls to follow in their footsteps, so they can become the Marie Curies, Ada Lovelaces and Sally Rides of tomorrow.