How Do We Encourage Girls in STEM Careers?

Sam Gouldson

Science Editor at Jump! Mag
Sam has worked as a forensic scientist as well as for the British government, and has degrees in both archaeology and osteoarchaeology. She has 2 children, is passionate about science, reading, history and music, and loves dyeing her hair bright colours!

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STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and it covers a large number of disciplines. STEM subjects are strongly male-dominated, both in the workplace and in our schools, and it is my firm belief that this needs to change.

Firstly we need to dispel the myth that boys are better at STEM subjects than girls. There is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain and there is strong evidence that girls do not process information differently to boys. In fact all children have innate curiosity, creativity and imagination, attributes that are ideal for exploring STEM subjects.

Secondly we need to challenge and combat the pervasive stereotypes and biases that bombard our children practically from birth. It’s not just the idea that STEM subjects aren’t for girls and women that’s harmful, although that’s what I’m looking at here; there’s also the damaging assumption that caring roles and so-called ‘soft’ subjects like the humanities and performing arts aren’t appropriate for boys.

The idea that STEM subjects are for boys is ingrained from a very early age; many toy stores divide their wares into those suitable for boys (science kits, building blocks, cars, computers) and girls (dolls, homecare toys, cuddly animals). Even if science kits and building blocks are in the section for girls they’re usually pink, to denote that they’re acceptable for girls to play with.

Science kits ‘for boys’ involve magnets, electronics, goo and explosions. Those marketed ‘for girls’ involve glitter, scent, and are strongly geared towards physical appearance (lip balm making sets for example). Things are slowly changing, thanks to the efforts of campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys, but the attitudes these toys represent remain ingrained in the majority of people.

By the time children start school they’re already largely convinced that boys like some things and girls like others. Teachers, parents, wider society and the media generally mirror this misapprehension, whether consciously or not, and so it just becomes more deeply entrenched. By the time children become teenagers and are choosing which subjects to pursue, the idea that girls might actually like STEM subjects and be good at them is almost unthinkable. This means that the vast majority of STEM students are boys, who then become the male majority of the STEM workforce, thus enforcing the gender bias for another generation. We’re now in the year 2015 and women make up just 13% of the STEM workforce.

So how can we help our girls to follow their interest in STEM subjects?

Challenge stereotypes and gender bias

Talk to your children about how silly it is that toys are divided by gender, when in fact all toys are suitable for all children. If someone tells them that girls can’t like superheroes and boys shouldn’t play with dolls, correct them gently but firmly. (As the mother of a superhero-mad girl and a boy who loves dressing as a princess, I have to do this quite often!). Challenge your own unconscious biases as well. We all have them; we’re all a product of our society.

Encourage Curiosity

Encourage your child’s curiosity, and be willing to explore the world with them. “Why?” may be the most infuriating word when you hear it hundreds of times a day, but it’s your child’s way of exploring the world around them, of figuring out how things work. Encourage them to experiment, whether it’s mixing paints to see which colours they end up with, working out how to build the tallest tower, the best paper aeroplane or combining kitchen ingredients to make an explosive mixture!

Admit when you don’t know the answer

Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer to a question, but see it as an opportunity to learn something together. One of the most uttered phrases in my home is “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”. You can look things up in books or on the internet, and discuss what you find. Show your children your open-mindedness, enthusiasm and curiosity and they’ll join in.

Praise their Effort

Praise their questions, their exploration and their abilities, but especially praise the effort they put in. Teach them not to be afraid of failure – after all, many of our scientific and technological advances resulted from things happening differently than they were expected to! Research has shown that girls are particularly prone to seeing failure as a bad thing rather than an opportunity to try again, and that they consistently underestimate their own abilities and knowledge when compared to others.

See STEM Everywhere

Show your child that STEM is everyday, it’s not special or unusual. Do your children have pets? That’s ecology and biology (and maybe veterinary science!). Do they cook or bake? That’s chemistry and maths. Do they play games with balls? That’s physics. Do they play with building blocks or Lego? That’s engineering, maths and physics. If they save up their pocket money to buy something, that’s economics. Discussing planets and stars is astronomy and astrophysics; learning about dinosaurs is geology and paleontology; an interest in the weather is meteorology and environmental science. The list is practically endless because STEM is all around us.

Show Them Female Role Models

There are plenty of female role models, they’re just not as obvious as the men. Some you might look at are Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Carolyn Porco, Sally Ride, Katherine Johnson, Anne McLaren, Grace Murray Hopper, Sylvia McClain, Ada Lovelace, Alice Roberts, Edith Clarke, Mary Anning, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Mary Leakey, Wu Chien-Shiung, Beatrix Potter, Helen Sharman, Susan Blackmore, Tessy Thomas, Shirley Ann Jackson… check out Jump! Mag for more, and look out for my upcoming book on 12 Awesome Women of Science!

Our task is threefold. First of all we need to normalise STEM subjects and help our girls realise that they’re not just relevant to them but essential, that they’re part of everyday life. Secondly we need to encourage their interest and help them build confidence in both themselves and their abilities. We have to teach them that failure isn’t a bad thing and that their potential is at least equal to boys when it comes to STEM subjects. Finally, we need to help society realise all these same things; perhaps in a generation or two there will be just as many women in the STEM workforce as men.

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