STEM Needs More Girls
Parents can provide crucial support
Although women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they hold only about 25 percent of jobs in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics— according to Generation STEM, a Girl Scouts report.
To interest more girls in STEM fields, local club and organization leaders believe support from parents and mentors, as well as sharing STEM experiences with peers, are crucial factors.
Though many young girls show an aptitude for STEM subjects, stereotypes of jobs in technical fields can discourage them from exploring these interests.
“STEM careers are often shown as a person, usually a guy, working alone,” says Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder of TechGirlz, a Philadelphia organization that holds workshops for middle-school girls on topics such as game design, coding and video editing.
Welson-Rossman says such depictions can make STEM jobs seem anti-social. “If you think about what’s important to a teenage girl, being socially acceptable is high on the list,” she says.
The image of someone hunched over a computer, crunching numbers solo, is largely inaccurate. “In any STEM job, you’re going to need feedback, to learn what works and what doesn’t, to problem-solve and troubleshoot — that’s all teamwork,” says Jan Cardinale, a volunteer coach for the W.A.G.S. (We Are Girl Scouts) robotics team, comprised of students from four Mercer County, NJ high schools.
Parents, mentors provide support
While kids usually choose their own classes and extracurricular activities, “parents have a huge influence on what their kids do, from figuring out which programs they should sign up for to driving them there,” Welson-Rossman says.
Cardinale advises parents to provide encouragement to explore STEM-related activities even when girls are at a young age. “Parents should expose their daughters to opportunities where they can use their hands, whether it’s puzzles or building something,” she says. “For any child to succeed at a high level, it’s going to take a lot of commitment from her parents as well.”
Interacting with role models who have succeeded in a STEM career can give girls guidance, as well as a glimpse into what life in the field is like. “If you don’t see a representation of that person who looks like you, then how are you supposed to see yourself doing that job?” asks Welson-Rossman.
According to Generation STEM, the Girl Scouts report, two-thirds of girls interested in STEM know someone in a STEM career and more than half know a woman in STEM.
Getting involved in STEM classes and clubs “really helps kids get out of their shell,” says Holly Maddams, executive director of Girls Inc. of Delaware, which offers an all-girls STEM Gems program that hosts after-school and weekend activities. Through the program, students who are initially shy often develop leadership qualities and confidence, she reports.
Having mentors and peers with a shared interest is extremely important, says Welson-Rossman. “A lot of these students are the only ones they know who are interested in things like technology and entrepreneurship,” she says.
Succeeding in a STEM activity or peer group “helps them see that they have what it takes to succeed in a STEM major in college or a career,” says Cardinale.