Although improvements are being made with the increased involvement of women in science-related careers, there is still a significant under-representation of women, especially among minority women. There are a number of factors that contribute to this lack of women in science in our society, but most of these factors can be overcome to produce the next Anita Roberts, Sally Ride, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Blackburn, or YOU.
According to a study entitled, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) by Kristine De Welde @ Florida Gulf Coast University and Sandra Laursen & Heather Thiry @ University of Colorado at Boulder (2007), several key factors prevent girls from entering or being successful in STEM fields. First, they found that the classroom environments in schools were not conducive to encouraging girls to pursue interests in these types of careers. Another key factor was a lack of female role models who could provide encouragement and inspiration as well as demonstrate how to balance their lives between careers and family life. Other significant factors include girls not being well prepared for the demands of these fields as well as not being encouraged by people around them. Furthermore, these women experience more discrimination and bias against them in the workplace in both hiring practices and in opportunities for advancement. These discriminatory practices also include differences in salaries between women and their male counterparts as well as the practice of seeing women in these positions at a lower status than their male colleagues. Finally, it is more difficult in general for women in the workplace to balance careers and families, but it is even more so for STEM careers because they are often more time-consuming due to requiring extended education, and this can result in the sacrifice of family life or career goals for these women.
However, these factors don’t have to squash a girl’s dream to work in the variety of STEM careers. A survey study presented last month (March 2010) by Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV, released the main causes for the under-representation of female scientists in STEM careers as well as pointed out the key factors (both positive & negative) that influence girls and women as they journey through the education system and workforce. Their hope is that the results will help to “knock down the barriers and provide to all of our budding scientists and engineers the attitudes, behaviors, opportunities and resources that lead to success.” (BFOSE XIV 2010)
The findings suggest that the lower numbers of women in STEM careers can be counteracted by certain changes. First of all, it is important for schools to have quality science programs that utilize hands-on materials and experiments, not just learning through textbooks. This is especially important in poorer school districts where these items may not be readily available. Educators should also be encouraged to provide more fun science classes and activities, and the district and community should support them and make the necessary resources available like BrainCake’s The Girl Solution Gender Equity Tool Kit. These activities should also be geared more towards girl interests. Successful female scientists should be invited to speak to classes, and girl-centered science clubs like the GEMS club should be created to give them the confidence, support, and resources they need to achieve success. Furthermore, multi-media resources should be utilized to help make science come alive like watching renowned science programs on television or on DVD like PBS’s NOVA and playing interactive games on the Internet like those found at Science News for Kids. Parents can also help encourage their daughters by purchasing science toys, kits, and equipment for them as well as help them to do simple experiments at home or for science fair projects. In addition, parents and educators can schedule trips to science museums & summer vacation science camps like Sally Ride’s Camps as well as provide access to good female role models, mentors, & support groups. Finally, everyone can provide encouragement, help girls to set goals, and create opportunities for them to increase their positive science experiences and self-confidence. National Girls Collaborative Project and Expanding Your Horizons Network are two organizations that can help make this possible.
Another study published in February 2010 called Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by Catherine Hill, Ph.D., Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St. Rose, Ed.D. focus on how families, schools, and communities can encourage girls to overcome obstacles to help them enter STEM careers. At the same time, in order to overcome the gender inequalities and societal stereotypes, it is important to believe that intelligence isn’t fixed, but it is something that can be nurtured and grown which helps level the playing field and means that girls have just as much potential to learn and thrive in these fields as boys. Another important factor in improving girls’ chances of excelling in these fields is to provide them with spatial training to increase their spatial skills. This can be done simply by encouraging them to build things, take them apart, and then put them back together again. Drawing and working with their hands on various projects will also help enhance their spatial abilities.
So how can we encourage more girls into STEM fields? The answers may seem simple, but history tells us that change isn’t easy. The key is for us to change people’s attitudes first and foremost which is probably one of the hardest things to do, but it will be well worth it if we do because it will allow us to tap into a reservoir of talented, creative female minds that can help us soar into the future. Then we have to provide the opportunities, experiences, skills, and resources that are necessary to get the job done. If we can’t find any in our communities, then we need to look to other communities for help or start new ones, and the Internet is full of practically infinite resources that we could use to jump-start any idea or program. What are you waiting for?