Historically, STEM careers have been heavily male-dominated. Out of the 50 most Googled scientists in history, only 3 are women. A consequence of this disparity is that young women lack role models in STEM career fields, which makes encouraging or inspiring them to walk that path all the more difficult.
STEM education and women in STEM careers have recently become very hot topics. Between Tim Hunt’s comments on female scientists, Target’s gender segmenting of their “building sets”, and the #iLookLikeAnEngineer campaign started by Isis Wenger, talk about gender inequality and the treatment of women in these fields has been everywhere.
While many of these professions still remain an old boy’s club, so to speak, there are many organizations working hard to change that by developing programs to expose a more diverse group of people to STEM and the opportunities in STEM careers. The National Girls Collaborative Project brings together groups that are committed to educating and encouraging girls who are interested in the STEM fields. The AAUW has worked since 1881 to be the nation’s leading voice in promoting equity and education for women and girls, and has recently turned their focus towards girls in STEM. On a smaller scale, Hear Me Code, founded by Shannon Turner, is teaching free coding classes at the beginner level exclusively to women in the DC area. The appetite for programs like this is huge – Hear Me Code, founded in September of 2013, describes itself as an organization that “started as an informal class around the kitchen table, [and now] has hundreds of members spread across multiple classes.”
The demand for STEM education isn’t limited by age group. Parents are looking everywhere for games that can prepare their children for STEM careers, like programming, and are willing to pitch in some of their own money to help create such games – Robot Turtles, a coding board game for kids 4+ created by Dan Shapiro, became the highest backed board game in Kickstarter history. The Toy Industry as a whole is working hard to make STEM fun for kids – young engineers can buy products like Creativity Can, and little programmers should look at the newly released Code Master.
When a trend like this one gathers momentum, it can be hard for schools to keep up. Those that have jumped on the STEM bandwagon, however, are reaping the benefits. Alexandria VA’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s STEM-focused curriculum has earned it the title of 3rd best high school in the country, with 100% of their students at or above the proficient level for math and science – all the more impressive when you consider that more than 65% of high school grads are not prepared for college level Math or Science, according to the National Math & Science Initiative.
It’s too early to see the direct results of these programs but women today remain underrepresented in the STEM education field and workforce. Women make up roughly 50% of undergraduate degree earners, and 20% of those college women have a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. Unfortunately, there is still a disconnect between education and career path, with only 11% of female STEM graduates working as engineers.
Perhaps part of the reason for this disparity is that, even today, negative stereotypes persist about the ability and intelligence of women. These stereotypes affect women and girls of all ages. Barely 10% of girls in STEM (ages 7-18) say their parents have encouraged them to think about an engineering career and only 13% say a career in a STEM field is their first choice, but 81% are interested in pursuing a career in STEM. We need to do more to encourage girls to pursue STEM education, but most of all we need to show them that the path to a career in STEM is open for women, and an awareness campaign like #iLookLikeAnEngineer is a great start.
There are things you can do right now to help your child engage with STEM:
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