Sixth-grade girls learn to code at TAF Academy. • Courtesy Photo
Sixth-grade girls learn to code at TAF Academy. • Courtesy Photo

The comparative lack of women studying and working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a very real phenomenon reinforced by statistics, and according to the latest research, one with very observable causes that extend beyond widespread gender stereotypes.

For instance, a study conducted by the National Girls Collaborative Project suggests that gender participation is roughly equal at the K-12 level. However, while women account for 50.3 percent of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees for these fields in 2010, that percentage is heavily skewed towards the biological sciences at the expense of computer sciences (18.2 percent), engineering (18.4 percent) and mathematics and statistics (43.1 percent).

The problem only intensifies once graduates enter employment; while women constitute some 58.1 percent of the overall workforce, they only represent 13.1 percent of civil engineers, 8.8 percent of electrical and electronics engineers, and 5.5 percent of mechanical engineers.

Why are there so few women pursuing and entering careers in STEM? It’s a question that the American Association of University Women (AAUW) tackled with its 2010 report, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” The report acknowledges that the participation rate for women in STEM has generally increased in recent years, yet men continue to dominate the fields, particularly at more senior levels.

According to Catherine Hill, Vice President for Research at AAUW, girls’ aversion to STEM disciplines is largely explained by social, cultural, and environmental conditioning from an early age.

“Girls and women face stereotypes and [biases] that affect their interest and willingness to pursue mathematically demanding fields,” Hill says. The AAUW report suggests that societal beliefs, such as a prevailing stereotype that boys are naturally more talented in these fields, discourage many girls from even pursuing them. However, the report also suggests that changes to learning environments that encourage girls and boys equally tend to eliminate any gendered disparities in performance.

Trish Dziko is the co-founder and executive director of the Technology Access Foundation (TAF): a non-profit organization that promotes and provides STEM education for students of color.

“Our school, actually, is almost half girls,” Dziko says. “And for a STEM school, that’s really, really good.”

While Dziko acknowledges that a lack of women in STEM is a particular problem across the board, she contends that it’s further compounded for women of color. Like Hill, she also believes that girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM by subtle social conditioning throughout their lives.

“It’s built in from the time kids are born,” Dziko says. “We dream what we want our kids to be, [and] often it’s gender-specific.”

Even women who do pursue careers in STEM face additional hurdles at the academic level, according to Dziko.

“A lot of women drop out of STEM majors,” Dziko says. “And a lot of it is because the entire program is generally catered to young men, the way they like to be taught, the things that they may want to do with their STEM career.”

Hillary Soens, executive director of the YWCA of Olympia says that the problem is multi-faceted. “Based on our experience at the YWCA of Olympia, having offered STEM camps and afterschool programs for girls for the past 12 years, we find that girls don’t feel confident or successful in their STEM classes at school,” Soens says. “They don’t have regular opportunities to engage in STEM activities in a meaningful or relevant way, and in many cases, they aren’t aware of the variety of STEM careers that are available.”

So, how do you combat a problem so systemic, so ingrained into our cultural consciousness? Hill suggests that promoting a ‘growth mindset’ in young girls is a great place to start.

“Individuals with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe that intelligence is static,” Hill explains. “When girls and women believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence, they are more likely to lose confidence and disengage from science and engineering when they inevitably encounter difficulties in their course work. This is true for all students, but it is particularly relevant for girls in math and science, where negative stereotypes persist about their abilities.”

In order to promote a growth mindset for girls, AAUW holds the Tech Trek initiative: a weeklong summer camp for eighth-grade girls that, according to the AAUW website, “empowers and encourages them to think about themselves as future scientists, engineers, mathematicians and computer specialists.”

Karen Manelis currently serves as a director of the AAUW Washington state board and its leg of Tech Trek. “The first camp was held at Stanford University in June 1998,” Manelis says. “We had hoped for 75 girls; we had 160 that year–one from almost every branch in California.” Tech Trek then expanded to different areas of California before securing the funds in 2012 to reach five states. Today, there are seven Tech Trek camps nationwide.

Soens says the lack of girls participating in STEM education can be largely addressed when existing education initiatives begin to cater to girls from all social standings.

“One place to start is providing meaningful, gender-responsive learning opportunities that are accessible,” Soens says. “When I say ‘accessible,’ I mean that they are responsive to the needs and interests of adolescent girls and they are available for girls from financially disadvantaged families.”

The YWCA of Olympia runs a program called Girls Without Limits!, which provides hands-on learning opportunities for girls and workshops led by women working in STEM disciplines.

“The primary focus of Girls Without Limits! is to expose girls to various topics within the STEM arena in an engaging way and spark an interest so that they want to learn more,” Soens says. “We also want girls to feel successful and confident so that they are compelled to engage in that subject again in the future. Sparking this interest and providing opportunities for girls to gain confidence in their abilities is critical in terms of empowering women to move in this direction professionally.”

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