Why do we still see an increasing number of girls opting out of STEM subjects in the US?

February 11, 2022

As we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science every year on 11th February, we look at a worrying trend on why women account for only 27 percent of the STEM workers in the US, despite making up nearly half of the workforce.

 

Image licensed from Adobe Stock Images.

The United Nations General Assembly had declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science over two decades ago, but data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not give us much reason to cheer. Only 27% of the workforce in STEM is women.

Through the years, we have seen an increasing number of women opting for higher education and the efforts to engage and inspire girls to participate in STEM, but why do we still see a significant 73 percent of men representing the STEM workforce?

What could be the reason for this dismal number of girls pursuing STEM subjects? On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is imperative to look at the whys and what we can do collectively to mitigate this massive visible gender gap.

Inspired by the Draw-A-Scientist Test (DAST), I asked my five-year-old nephew to draw a STEM professional. I defined a STEM professional for him. He promptly drew his mother, who is a doctor.

When I prodded further, asking him why he did not draw his father, also a doctor, he told me: “Doctor is a girl, so I drew Mummy.”

My sister-in-law got very interested in this exercise and told her colleagues and friends to ask their children to make a portrait of a STEM professional.

Six children, from ages five to nine, participated in this exercise. All the children have parents as doctors. Except for my nephew, they were all girls. Surprisingly, all of them drew lady doctors, barring one. She sketched her surgeon father.

My idea was to check what images children hold of STEM professionals. Six is too small a number to deduce anything, but there’s a silver lining. Times are indeed changing, and parents play a huge role in influencing children and dispelling stereotypes.

It is nothing short of amazing when mothers can inspire their children, especially their daughters. A study from the Harvard Business School indicated that daughters who had working mothers had more successful careers with higher salaries than daughters of homemakers. It might be a single data point, but it is becoming increasingly clear that working parents inspire their children.

 

Role of parents and teachers…

 

Image licensed from Adobe Stock Images.

Parents are instrumental in how children perceive things as they grow up. They play a huge role in motivating and molding them.

Seven-year-old Ashley loves the little DIY electronics kit she received for her birthday. “She wants to build her robot from the ground up. Since she needs to learn the basics to build it, I gifted her an electronics kit,” says Ashley’s mother, Louise.

Also, take the case of Kia, who is an aspiring physicist. She attributes her keen interest in physics to her scientist parents, who have encouraged and guided her since she was ten years. Today she is equally grateful to her teachers.

The stories of Ashley and Kia are testimony to how parents and teachers play a pivotal role in inspiring and encouraging girls to choose STEM subjects in schools and colleges and, subsequently, a career.

However, every girl is not as lucky as Ashley or Kia. Kia voices her concern about her best friend and senior in college, who had to drop out of physics because of family and socioeconomic problems.

 

“Many young girls do not receive encouragement from their families or teachers…”

Wendy Freedman, an astronomer, and John & Marion Sullivan University Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, rightly opines:

 

“In talking to many women scientist colleagues of mine, I have noticed that many of us have had fathers and mothers who have supported us in pursuing a scientific career. In particular, fathers can play an outsized role in encouraging their daughters to pursue non-traditional careers.”

“Finally, we cannot underestimate the encouragement of teachers from elementary school, through high school, and university.”

“Sadly, these ingredients have been largely missing historically, and even today, many young girls do not receive encouragement from their families or teachers to pursue a STEM career.”

STEM as a career option is opening up innumerable opportunities for women. Unfortunately, the number of women reaching the top is always lower than men. Research suggests that society thinks of STEM as a male bastion, making it look like men are better suited for STEM fields than women. It is also a common belief that women in STEM are less competent than their male counterparts. Unless they show exceptional success, nobody notices.

Several studies have shown time and again that women can accomplish just as well as men in all the STEM fields and gender does not make a difference when it comes to skills.

However, the crux of the problem lies in negative stereotyping, gender disparity, an unfriendly environment in schools and colleges, and according to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.”

Where does this leave us? Fewer women pursuing STEM majors, and subsequently, the number declines further in the workplace.

 

– Graphics: Sidra Choudhry

According to the Pew Research Center data, women are more likely to join college and earn a degree than men. In the past four decades, women got the majority of all the degrees, starting from bachelor’s to masters and doctorates. Interestingly, they added up to 53 percent of degrees in STEM fields at the bachelor’s level, 60 percent at the master’s level, and 48 percent at the doctoral level.

The figures showing 58 percent of women accounting for professional doctorate degrees in health sciences are comforting. However, according to the same data source, we see very few women in physical sciences, math, engineering, and computing. When 80 percent of the STEM workforce comprises engineering and computer occupations, only a quarter of women represent the computing world, while 15 percent are in engineering.

Interestingly, Pew Research Center data shows women constitute more than half of the nation’s social scientists. The irony, however, is that social science accounts for only 3 percent of the STEM workforce.

The base for a STEM career is paved early on in life. Therefore, it is crucial to encourage and inspire girls early on from the elementary, middle, and high school levels. The AAUW study further suggests that the “growth mindset” environment and social belief play a vital role in girls’ achievements and interest in STEM. The report stated that “believing in the potential for intellectual growth, in and of itself, improves outcomes.”

 

“Need to help girls maintain the natural confidence most have at younger ages…”

Planetary scientist and Professor of Planetary Science, Physics, and Aerospace Engineering at MIT, Sara Seager remarks:

 

“A major issue facing women of every age — but especially girls — is lack of confidence. We need to help girls maintain the natural confidence most have at younger ages. Many of us who succeeded had parents or role models that established and reinforced building blocks for confidence and we need to find a way to extend this to all interested.”

 

Role models like no other…

Having role models and mentors is essential because when children have someone they can look up to and admire they end up gravitating toward their role models and pursuing a career path like their role models.

In the medical drama, The Good Doctor, when Dr. Claire Brown’s role model becomes her patient, she tells her how the story of Evvie Sinclaire that she had narrated during her high school graduation inspired her and kept her going. “So, I am a doctor because of you and Evvie,” she boasts. Though the story of Evvie was fictitious, which is altogether a different story, the impact a role model can have on anyone is humongous.

Parents and teachers can play a pivotal role in highlighting STEM women achievers, both contemporary and historical, that children can look up to as role models and be excited about their careers.

 

Small changes can go a long way…

 

Image licensed from Adobe Stock Images.

Engineers and scientists are born in colleges and universities. Therefore, it is crucial to introduce small changes in the STEM departments. Promoting integration and attracting and retaining women students and faculty will help motivate many girls to pursue further studies. Also, equal participation in projects and research work will inspire girls further.

UNESCO, in its Advocacy Guide, lays down the following themes and “encourages us to use this guide for inspiration, for information, and for an invitation to a better future for us all.”

  • After-school projects and clubs
  • STEM camps
  • Contests and competitions
  • Role models and mentors
  • Career guidance
  • Scholarships
  • Online tools for hands-on learning

These small steps will encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects and make them feel supported, besides helping them get rid of negative stereotypes about their abilities. A collective effort to ensure gender equality and inspire girls that anyone with grit and determination can pursue their passions will bring in a world of difference.

 

“It’s hard to excel in spaces where you do not feel you belong…”

Biomedical scientist, and STEM activist, Dr. Knatokie Ford, leaves us with an impetus for thought to ponder over:

Dr. Knatokie Ford

 

“Cultural paradigms promote the persistent issues with attracting and retaining women and girls in STEM fields. Negative stereotypes and messaging shape self-perceptions and hence performance, which is further exacerbated by the culture of exclusion that has historically been a source of pride for some STEM practitioners.”

“It’s hard to excel in spaces where you do not feel you belong. There has also been a long-standing neglect of addressing intersectionality in women’s issues. Identity is multidimensional — race, ability, and sexuality all intersect with gender, yet the subtext of the focus on women has traditionally meant cis, able-bodied, heterosexual, and white.”

We already know what the problems are, but sometimes we tend to overlook them and keep hustling. A better future for all the girls in the world and for all of humanity depends upon what actions we take today. So on this note, what are we going to do about it?

 

Acknowledgment

Special thanks to Professor Wendy Freedman, Professor Sara Seager, and Dr. Knatokie Ford for their unbiased opinion on the topic.

About Author
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as the head of communications with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak

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