by Laura Pearson
Despite scoring higher than their male peers in problem solving related to engineering and technology, girls continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. While this is an issue well beyond the scope of an individual classroom, teachers have an important role to play in balancing the STEM gender gap.
Throughout elementary and high school, girls participate in science and math at approximately the same rate as boys, with some exceptions. While girls are just as likely as boys to take advanced classes in mathematics and chemistry, they’re less likely to enroll in computer science or engineering courses. And that same trend carries over to higher education.
Although the overall statistics look roughly equitable, with women earning 50.3 percent of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, women’s participation varies significantly across different fields. While women account for more than half of all bachelor’s degrees in the biological sciences, they only receive 17.9 percent of computer science degrees, 19.3 percent of engineering degrees, 39 percent of physical science degrees, and 43.1 percent of mathematics degrees, despite representing nearly 57 percent of all college students.
According to Scholastic, girls’ participation in science starts dropping off in junior high, and the trend continues into high school and college. Since data shows that the difference isn’t in ability, researchers believe there’s something else at play. The National Science Foundation suggests much of the STEM gender gap can be attributed to a sense of belonging; specifically, that a lack of exposure to successful women in STEM causes girls to doubt their own abilities and opt for fields with larger proportions of women instead.
Elementary, middle, and high school teachers play a critical role in keeping girls in STEM.
By intervening before a stereotype threat takes hold, it’s possible to build girls’ confidence and keep them on track toward in-demand careers. Rather than teaching girls in a different way than boys, teachers should craft an approach that makes STEM welcoming and accessible to all. Here are a few ideas to get started:
1. Highlight potential career paths in STEM. Students can’t always connect the schoolwork in front of them to its real-world applications; even if they do understand its value, they likely aren’t aware of the full scope of career options available to them.
2. Incorporate lessons about accomplished female scientists and engineers in curricula. Research shows that exposure to same-gender experts provides girls with a sense of belonging. Rather than restricting lessons to historic women like Marie Curie, discuss women who are making a difference in today’s world.
3. When planning cooperative exercises, distribute class groups to have an equal balance of boys and girls. Assigning at least two girls to a group eliminates the feeling of being outnumbered, which can encourage increased participation.
4. Make sure lesson plans around STEM topics don’t only include stereotypically masculine topics. At the same time, teachers shouldn’t cater exclusively to female students and risk alienating males. Instead, opt for topics with broad appeal and real life relevancy. For example, a lesson plan that bridges a popular career with math, science, English, social studies and home economics skills. For more ideas, try Science Buddies’ topic selection wizard.
Diversity is essential for producing innovation in science and technology. When STEM fields draw upon a broad pool of perspectives and life experiences to solve complex problems, progress is made that much faster. When it comes to girls in STEM, the problem isn’t ability, but rather persistence in a field where they’re the minority. Overcoming the challenges of being a woman in STEM requires girls to feel confident about their place in science and engineering, and teachers are primed to plant those seeds of success.
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