From Toys to the White House Science Fair

FRESH INSIGHT: TrishCotter

22.FreshInsightMany STEM advocates believe that the exposure needs to start with very young girls.

A recent study by the Girl Scout Research Institute reports that American teenage girls are fascinated with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. According to the study, about 74 percent of high school girls across the country are interested in STEM.

There is huge opportunity in STEM—in the last 10 years, STEM jobs increased three times faster than non-STEM jobs. In addition, STEM workers command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.

Gender inequality in STEM

If girls have an interest in STEM in high school, why isn’t that interest translating into STEM majors in college and eventually into STEM careers?

Although 57 percent of American college and university students are women, only about 25 percent of STEM degree holders are women, due largely to a lack of female college students studying engineering, computer science, and physical sciences.

Toys, scouting, and the White House Science Fair—what works?

Many STEM advocates believe that the exposure needs to start with very young girls and their toys. One example is GoldieBlox5, a company that aims to “disrupt the pink aisle” and inspire the next generation of engineers. The mission of the brand is to get girls building and to level the playing field.

The Girl Scouts have also developed a program to refocus gender-stereotyped thinking and to encourage middle and high school girls to pursue STEM education at the college level. They believe this is a way that girls can freely engage in exploration and experiments—
unhindered by any social pressures created by a typically mixed-gender classroom environment. President Barack Obama is also trying to reenergize STEM. The 2015 White House Science Fair—the fifth ever—featured dozens of students and had a specific focus on girls and women who are excelling in STEM and inspiring the next generation with their work.

A need for mentors and role models

A strong global STEM ecosystem is required to ensure that female students graduate with the technical and other professional skills needed to succeed in STEM careers. As success is judged by raw numbers, more women STEM professionals will have to prove themselves in a male-dominated world.

A strong mentorship culture created by current female STEM executives can be a good starting point. In addition, STEM role models—both male and female—can show the different options for career paths. Exposure to STEM activities outside school and ditching the “nerdy” stereotype also help.

Recent data reveals that the tide may be starting to turn. For 2009–2013, there was a 20 percent increase in women obtaining science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, compared to 12 percent growth for nonscience and engineering fields. That’s good news indeed. DW

Trish Cotter is currently Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit trishcotter.com.

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