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Girls are Opting out of STEM: What Can We Do?

Updated: Feb 22

With STEM-related fields burgeoning, why is it that girls are less likely to pursue these opportunities than boys?



“Draw a scientist.”

In studies where students have been asked to do this, girls have been twice as likely to depict the scientist as a man rather than a woman. Boys nearly always draw a man. What does this say about how we as a culture create a divide between girls and science?


The importance of STEM education is now a well-worn discussion. We know that STEM-related fields are the fastest-growing and some of the highest-paying job opportunities in the U.S. But statistics show that the percentage of women in STEM fields is still shockingly low.


Females currently make up only 28% of the STEM workforce. Research shows that the percentage of males going into STEM majors in college is nearly double that of females. And a study by Microsoft discovered that only 3 in 5 girls understand how STEM is relevant to their lives.


Why is there this disconnect for girls? There are a wide array of reasons and speculations why girls are less likely to enter STEM-related fields. We’re going to look at three of the big ones: math anxiety, gender and racial inequality, and fewer role models.


In this article, we will examine what contributes to these three gaps between girls and STEM and provide resources to discover how to encourage young girls to pursue an interest in STEM.

1. Math anxiety


“Boys do not pursue mathematical activities at a higher rate than girls because they are better at mathematics. They do so, at least in part, because they think they are better.” – Shelley Correll, Professor of Sociology at Stanford University

There is a myth about girls and mathematics that has created the belief that the female brain is not naturally as gifted at math. But research does not support this. In a study conducted by Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, it was discovered that in children from grades 2-11, there was no distinction in math skills based on gender. And in another study, though boys often are graded higher in mathematical skill, this divide is significantly narrowed in countries with greater gender equality.


These study results indicate that cultural and societal influences are the drivers behind the Math Brain Myth. It’s been reported that girls’ confidence in math diminishes significantly by third grade whereas boys report a higher confidence in math by 2nd grade.


Math anxiety is a common human experience. 90% of adults admit to feeling anxious about math – with the number being higher for women. It was found in a freshman college math course at the University of California that 92% of female students were math anxious due to inadequate math preparation in school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, ¾ of teachers in the U.S. are female. And in a study conducted by the University of Chicago, it was found that female teachers’ anxiety about math affected the performance of their female students but not their male students.


It is clear that the myth about females being “bad at math” really has taken a psychological and emotional hold on both young girls and adult females. This causes an immediate disadvantage for girls studying math and can dissuade them from pursuing an interest in STEM-related fields.


Solutions Check gendered beliefs. Young girls look to older women to model for them their own self-confidence. It is crucial as a parent and a teacher helping a young girl learn math to improve your own self-confidence and be aware of any biases towards gender. Be sure that if you are working with a young girl in mathematics, you are not bringing any biases to the table – towards her or yourself. Remember that girls + math DOES equal success!·

Play math games. Girls need to place themselves within the world of mathematics, learn how to make mistakes, have fun, and ask questions. MentalUP creates math games for students from Preschool – 8th Grade that can help girls build their self-confidence in math. And for adults, the popular language app Duolingo offers a mathematics app to improve your own mathematical confidence (remember – 90% of adults experience math anxiety!)

Seek out more opportunities for STEM programs. NJIN is committed to creating STEM experiences for young people that grow their self-confidence, innovation, and problem-solving skills. And we are passionate about finding more young women to join us so we can promote female interest and involvement in STEM! Check out our homepage to find the program that’s perfect for you.

2. Gender and Racial Inequality


“I believe that STEM are the MOST creative professions on earth, absolutely boundary-less and it’s vital that we have people of ALL different backgrounds participating.” – Dona Sarkar, Principal Program Manager at Microsoft Women make up 52% of the college-educated workforce, yet only 28% of the STEM workforce. Of the 28% of women in STEM, only 2.5% are black, 0.07% indigenous, and 2.3% Latina. While sexism and racism may be diminishing in women’s acceptance to college education (women now make up 50% of the college-educated workforce), it is still ruling in the STEM world. Yale research has discovered that women in STEM experience more workplace discrimination than women in other fields, and the gender wage gap is immense. Women make $15,000 less annually than their male colleagues while BIPOC women sometimes make $50,000 less than males.


STEM is still a highly white, man-dominated field. It is important for us to encourage all girls and BIPOC girls to pursue an interest in STEM to address this racial and gender bias, close the gender wage gap, and create a more diverse workforce.


Solutions

Encourage a growth mindset. Developing a growth mindset is critical for girls so they have the mental tools to override messaging that their gender or their race limits them. A growth mindset views setbacks as opportunities to grow rather than insurmountable problems or fixed realities. Check out this wonderful workbook for young girls which provides helpful journaling practices, inspirational quotes, and self-reflection questions to encourage self-belief and curiosity. There are also many apps that teachers/parents and girls can use to encourage a growth mindset and build affirmations.


Broaden the STEM vision. Remember that Microsoft study statistic that 3 out of 5 girls don’t understand how STEM applies to their life goals? That same study found that 72% of girls want to be involved in a career that changes the world. It’s crucial that girls understand how widely applicable studying STEM is and how it can be connected to their desires to change the world. We must help girls realize the vast benefits of STEM – including enhanced creativity, critical thinking, and experimentation – that can be applicable to a myriad of different jobs. It’s possible to become an environmental scientist, a civil engineer, or a technical writer – a girl’s options are not limited to becoming a mathematician or a doctor.

Increase diversity. It is crucial for STEM programs everywhere to promote diverse groups of students from all gender identities and races. At NJIN, we enjoy a beautiful diversity within our student body and are always finding ways to encourage BIPOC and people of any gender identity to experience the inviting, accepting, and judgement-free space our farm has to offer. Come experience that for yourself!




3. Fewer Role Models

“I believe passionately that every young woman should feel free to choose whatever she wants to do in life. The only limit to her dreams should be the extent of her own efforts.” – Miriam González Durántez, Founder of Inspiring Girls International


Because of the limited number of women in STEM professions, young girls have an even greater challenge of finding the role models they need to inspire them. In a study conducted by Girl Guides, 55% of girls between the ages of 11-21 say they do not have enough access to female role models. Role models are very important for young girls, especially when considering entering science or technology fields. One study found that girls are more likely to choose a STEM major in college if they have a female STEM professor.


Inspiring Girls International is an organization founded by Miriam González Durántez that inspires young girls to pursue their career of choice by connecting them with female role models in their chosen fields. Miriam was motivated to found the organization after hearing that many girls felt they lacked a role model and has dedicated herself to ensuring every girl has the female mentorship they need to achieve. The organization is active in 29 countries around the world and is an example of how we can create REAL, powerful solutions to helping women break the stereotypes surrounding STEM.


Other Solutions

Highlight successful women in STEM. Visibility is everything. It is the responsibility of teachers and parents to seek out examples of women in STEM and include their stories in class and home settings. By seeing real, successful women in these fields, girls will be more likely to believe that it is possible for them to pursue their passions and be willing to challenge the stigmas. For resource, check out this list of 9 STEM women who changed the world. And also check out this list of BIPOC women who were the first to make big changes within STEM fields.


Seek out mentors and organizations. Don’t be shy in asking for women’s help – we are all in this together! Visit our NJIN home page to enroll in one of our STEM camps this summer and connect with other like-minded girls. Try asking any of your female friends who are working in a STEM field if they would mentor you or your child. Discover the number of organizations that support women, BIPOC, and queer people entering into the science and technology fields. Get involved with others and ask them for support – breaking stereotypes is hard work and it’s important that we ask for help.


Believe in yourself wholeheartedly. We’ve all heard stories of incredible, brave people who believed in themselves wholly and chose to pursue their own passions rather than listen to the noise of others’ opinions. It’s easy to envy them or to think they have something we don’t. But those people were able to pursue themselves because they conditioned the muscle of self-belief. Listening to ourselves takes practice. It’s important for young girls to make a habit of working to develop their own sense of self. Trusting instincts, discovering ways to become self-curious, and getting lost in learning about a passion are active steps in the art of self-belief. There is truly no limit.

We want girls to feel empowered and to know that they can achieve anything. We are here for you. Please use us as a resource and a support system to make the biggest, most colorful dreams of yours or a girl you love come true. We want to see more women mathematicians, more women scientists, more women engineers – the world needs the girls!


Comment your thoughts and feelings below if you want to connect. And be sure to DM us on our Instagram @nj_institute_of_nature.