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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Women in STEM

Women in STEM: Bridging the Gap

     With Women's History Month winding to a close, will the conversation about STEM education for females also dwindle to a mere whisper? We have already written about the accomplished women in the STEM fields, but what about the young mathematicians and scientists that are trying to break into the male-dominated area of study? While the disparity between males and females in STEM is easy to spot, the root of the problem is not as obvious. For years, researchers have made efforts to determine what exactly causes females to shy away from careers in math and science. Pinpointing specific problems would allow for an effective solution to take shape. This post is aiming to inform people about the obstacles that stand in the way for women in STEM, as well the work that has been done to bridge the gender gap.

So, what's the problem? And why does it matter?

     In the general workforce, females are only slightly outnumbered by men. Men encompass 52% of the workforce, while females make up the other 48%. However, in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), woman make up only 24% of the workforce. This statistic shows that as most industries are closing the gender gap, the STEM field is making much less progress. This is significant to women, because in the STEM field the wage gap between men and women is actually much smaller. In STEM, the wage gap is only 14%, whereas is all other fields the gap is 21%. In addition to this, STEM careers have higher salaries in general, averaging over $10 more an hour. There is also a greater chance for career advancements. More importantly, in an era of global competition and technology, shouldn't we be utilizing all possible talent in the important fields of math and science? The gender gap in STEM shows that a significant supply of intelligent and capable female workers are not being used efficiently. 

Disparity in Higher Education

     New studies show that females are actually more likely to earn a college degree than males are. However, this trend does not translate into the fields of math and science. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, as a smaller share of STEM degrees are going to females. Between 2004 and 2014, the percent of STEM degrees earned by women decreased in each discipline area. On average, only 35% of STEM degrees are earned by females, and 65% are earned by males. The fields with the greatest discrepancy between men and women are computer science and engineering. Each only confer about 18% of degrees to females. Interestingly enough, the gap grows throughout college. In other words, there is a lower retention rate for females in STEM. This is particularly true in the fields dominated by men, such as engineering. Out of 100 female students, only 12 will graduate with a stem degree.

Perception and Stereotypes 

     Picture it. A stereotypically "nerdy" male with a female friend that struggles with basic math–a twist on the classic, "Beauty and the Geek". How many shows follow this plot line?  I can think of a few off the top of my head. Even in the modern era, our culture is pervaded with the idea that young boys should play with legos, while girls should play with Barbies. It may seem trivial, but even simple toy or show choices can impact the decisions young children make, and set into motion their likes and dislikes. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, at age 9 the gender gap in science and math starts to widen. About 2/3 of girls under the age of 12 claim to like science, yet by the time they reach high school, opt out of advanced level math and science courses. What causes them to diverge from their original interests? Around age 12, girls start to lose confidence in their mathematical abilities. In a survey, a 15 year-old females were more likely to"get nervous when doing a math problem", or "worry that they will get low marks" than their male counterparts. This does not necessarily reflect their grades, but instead shows the mindset that young girls assume when it comes to learning in the STEM fields.
     Unfortunately, some teachers fail to reassure these students. In a NBER study, a researcher found that when grading math, teachers who knew the gender of the test taker were more likely to show a bias favoring male students. When they were unaware of gender, the exams were scored more evenly. This information seems to show that students and teachers alike are likely to adhere to the gender stereotypes set forth in the past. In fact, students in entry level college biology classes were asked to guess which students in their class had the highest grade. The answers showed that male students overwhelmingly selected other males, while females selected males and females equally. Could this be a reason why more females don't continue taking STEM classes after beginner courses?

What's being done to help?

     Many researchers agree that part of the issue plaguing females in STEM is the lack of mentors. If there aren't a plethora of women in STEM, there is less encouragement for young girls to work in that field. Therefore, in the next generation, there are still less women in STEM, and the cycle continues. In order to put an end to the cyclic imbalance of the STEM fields, organizations like Million Women Mentors are forming. Million Women Mentors encourages both men and women to sign up as mentors, and then match these mentors with young women. They strive to not only get students interested in STEM, but to further the initial interest through encouragement, job-shadowing, internships, and sponsorships. Larger corporations, such as the Huffington Post, also have initiatives in place to encourage and support women in STEM. President Obama and the White House have also dedicated time and resources to the improvement in STEM. A new 15 million dollar is being proposed that would grant money to mentoring programs, as well as new curriculum for k-12 STEM education.
     Getting to the root of the problem, however, involves a change in mindset from educators, students, and STEM professionals alike. In an article by Tech Crunch, Erin Sawyer explains the importance of incorporating STEm education at an early age and continuing to foster a connection to math and science. This involves showing young girls practical uses of STEM. For an example, Kids' Vision is an after-school program that brings girls into Silicon Valley and exposes them to the tech industry. Likewise, Technovation is placing leadership in young girls' hands, holding competitions to build confidence and familiarity with the STEM field. These programs can help initiate an interest in STEM, and broaden the career opportunities that young women see.

So what can you do?

Becoming aware of the issue is one of the first steps towards finding a solution. Changing your own mindset about females in STEM is a way to ensure you are doing your part. Whether it's signing up to become a mentor, staying up to date on new programs, or simply encouraging your child to follow their interests, any step is good if it's in the right direction.


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