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Women in the United States have made significant strides in education and entry into the workforce. However, despite these advances, women are still underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Representation of women in STEM is low at all levels of the career pipeline from general interest in STEM careers to selecting STEM courses in high school. There is also little interest in majoring in a STEM field in college and pursuing a STEM career in adulthood (Botella et. al, 2019).
Studies show that girls lose interest in math and science during middle school, and their interest in STEM is low compared to boys. These gaps have nothing to do with intellectual ability. Girls currently make up over half of the gifted student population in the U.S. Some people believe that girls are not high achievers in math and science, but are stronger in English, language arts, and social studies. However, performance assessments paint a different picture.
According to the American Association of University Women, high school girls and boys perform equally well in both math and science. Specifically, high school girls earn more math and science credits than boys. Girls also have higher GPAs in math and science compared to boys. However, it is equally important to note that boys tend to do better on standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT (Shettle et. al, 2007). The problem does not appear to be that girls cannot succeed in STEM programs, but rather girls do not pursue STEM subjects and programs in large numbers.
Why does gender balance matter in STEM?
Generally, people are unaware of the gender imbalance when it comes to STEM. Those of us who are not STEM professionals are unaware of the significance of a gender imbalance in STEM programs and careers. So, why does it matter? It matters because all aspects of the world, including its workforce, should reflect the diversity of its people. In 2017, 50.5 percent of the population in the U.S. was female. To reflect this, it is reasonable to say that half of all STEM careers in the U.S. should be filled by females.
How can 4-H agents encourage girls to pursue STEM?
While girls succeed in STEM programs, it appears many will not pursue these subject matters and programs. Girls must be motivated to pursue these programs in order to develop a gender balance in the industry. Here are a few ways to encourage girls to pursue STEM.
- Invite questions. Girls need to learn the value of failure. They need to learn that it’s okay not to have all the answers. That does not make them unintelligent. STEM professionals are question askers and problem solvers. Invite girls to ask questions and solve problems to develop their inquisitive minds.
- Start early. If girls become passionate about STEM at a young age (elementary and middle school), they are more likely to pursue STEM programs in high school and college. Show girls that STEM can be connected to their interests. They will be more excited to continue their involvement in STEM programs if they develop a passion for the programs at an early age.
- Develop inclusive learning environments. Get rid of the stereotypes surrounding STEM. STEM is not just for boys. Boys are not smarter than girls and STEM programs are not “nerdy.” Inclusivity, engaging all students in STEM-related programs is a key factor in diminishing these stereotypes.
- Talk about successful women. It is sometimes easier for people to pursue a career if they see someone like themselves in that career. To get girls interested in pursuing STEM careers, they need to see that successful female STEM professionals do exist. Having female STEM professionals act as mentors for young girls can help girls visualize themselves in such roles one day. Everyone needs a role model, so what better role model for young girls than a female who has overcome barriers to become a successful STEM professional?
For more information on STEM programs, please contact your local 4-H youth development agent or Angela R. Williams, an Alabama Extension 4-H youth development specialist.