Closing the STEM gender gap
Meagan Pollock
October 15, 2019

When we think of the archetypical engineer, we visualize someone who looks somewhat like the comic strip character Dilbert. That’s certainly what my machinist-turned-engineer father, and all of my friends’ fathers who worked at chemical plants or paper mills, looked like. But that’s a single story that  does not take into account individuals such as African American Donna Auguste, Indian-born Kalpana Chawla, or Austrian-born Hedy Lamar.

In a 2009 TED talk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated, “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Being exposed to that single story creates an implicit bias. The vision of the image of Dilbert can discourage women and minorities from entering STEM fields if we don’t change that story.

In my case, I loved STEM subjects so much that I took every available math, science or programming course my school offered. I even took a geography class remotely and tested out of typing and home economics so that I could have more room in my schedule for math and science. But I still didn’t think a STEM career was for people like me. Fortunately, on the week of my graduation, one of my teachers, Terri Estes, encouraged me to consider attending Texas Woman’s University, as they had a brand-new special program designed to create more women engineers. The rest is history.

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The Effect of Gendered Stereotypes

Research shows that girls begin to make decisions about whether math is for them around the fourth and fifth grades. At the same time, they may receive “micromessages” implying that girls don’t belong in fields like mathematics or STEM.

A common example of this is when manipulatives are being used. Girls are likely to let boys handle them. Many girls are not even aware that they are doing this. Having children work with virtual manipulatives -- such as a virtual 3D CoderZ robot -- works around that tendency because each one has their own manipulative.

Countering Cultural Stereotypes

One way to counter micromessages is with inspiring messages. A team of marketers asked some STEM professionals questions about what they do and then had students identify which statements resonated the most. Here are the top three messages, with explanations of why they resonate with girls:

  • STEM careers are essential to our health, happiness and safety. Girls are gendered to think of themselves as nurturers and so tend to go into helping professions. Describing STEM work as a way to influence and improve our lives is very likely to capture their interest.
  • STEM professionals make a world of difference and help shape the future. A Forbes article reported that 72% of girls polled wanted jobs that directly helped the world, but only 37 percent thought of STEM careers as an avenue for that.
  • STEM professionals are creative and collaborative problem solvers. Research has found that helpinggirls connect creativity with problem solving is a highly effective way to socialize them into the STEM fields.

Giving K-8 students more opportunities to engage in STEM and ensuring that high school STEM classes are not electives are effective ways of keeping more girls from preemptively opting out of STEM studies. In the class, you should attempt to use learning plans and tools that are friendly to both genders.

If a class has to be an elective, then ensure that about half of that class consists of girls. The easiest way to do this is to recruit girls in groups; if they enter the class in cohorts, they are more likely to stick with it. Plus, once you get 30% of one gender in a class, the class culture shifts, and the girls develop their own spirit of camaraderie. We saw that during the 2018 multi-state Cyber Robotics Coding Competitions where 47% of participants were female students.

However, even when female students take the same number of STEM classes as male students, they still receive micromessages that can affect their level of self-efficacy. High self-efficacy predicts success by stimulating motivation and persistence. Low self-efficacy results in doubt, fear, and avoidance.

Here are three ways to help develop girls’ self-efficacy:

  • Mastery experiences. Previous experiences and performances can build students’ confidence in their ability to handle a task and even tackle something more challenging

  • Vicarious experiences. The observation of female role models in STEM fields can foster girls’ belief that they can do something similar; college-level STEM students or even upper classmen can suffice.

  • Social persuasion. Verbal acknowledgement and encouragement are also key for building efficacy.

What is commonly known as “sticky” feedback combines two of the above approaches, mastery experiences and social persuasion, by verbally recognizing students’ mastery of a task or their efforts at mastery. However, parents and educators need to take care not to insert micromessages. One common example of this is that girls are more likely to be praised for the way their work looks rather than the actual quality of the work.

Closing the Gender Gap

Closing the STEM gender gap means educators not only have to challenge stereotypes they must also think about gender biases they may be inadvertently expressing in their language. Professional development  resources such as the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity can help teachers to counter any gender bias traps they may unwittingly have fallen into as well as to incorporate growth mindsets, problem-based learning, culturally responsive teaching and more in their instruction.

************* STEM RESOURCES **************

Beef up your STEM toolkit with these great resources.

Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics from the American Association of University Women will help you better understand research on gender disparity in STEM.

TeachEngineering.org: STEM curriculum for K-12 is a digital library of curriculum aimed at teaching engineering concepts. Content in the library has been vetted by engineering professionals and is aligned to standards.

Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering is a report from a two-year project by the National Academy of Engineering and can support professional development.

NovelEngineering.org lets students consider a book that they have to read for school from the perspective of how they help a character by using engineering concepts

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Meagan Pollock, Ph.D., is the executive director of Design Connect Create, a nonprofit organization that empowers young women to become successful in STEM course. She also works with NAPE as an instructor. Pollock recently spoke about closing the STEM gap at a webinar sponsored by https://gocoderz.com/webinars.

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