What the Research Shows
Even though young girls and boys sit side by side in educational settings all across the country, women are much less likely to choose careers in science and engineering than men. Although the number of women in STEM fields has increased tremendously over the past half-century, it still is not keeping pace with the rising demand for skilled workers in these areas.
Between the years 2006 and 2016, the total employment in science and engineering (S&E) occupations will increase at more than double the overall growth rate for all occupations (National Science Board [NSB], 2010). Although women make up about half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they represented only 26% of the college-educated workforce in S&E occupations in 2006 (NSB, 2010). The simple truth is that Americans cannot remain competitive in STEM fields without more women entering these careers. The graph below shows the number of women who were employed in selected STEM professions in 2008.
While women are making gains in some fields, the careers in which women are advancing are not the ones in which demand is growing the most. Approximately 64% of the projected increase in S&E jobs is in computers and math (NSB, 2010). But in 2008, the percentage of jobs held by women in computer science was only 24%, down from 36% in 1991 (Ashcraft & Blithe, 2009). Many people argue that encouraging women and minorities in these fields will ultimately improve these professions, maximizing innovation to create products and services that are better representative of all users (Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010).
But the problem begins even earlier. The graph below shows the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by women and men in S&E fields in 2007. Women have steadily increased their numbers in some areas of science, including social and biological sciences, but they are still lagging behind in areas such as physics, computer science, and engineering.
In order to prepare our girls for the 21st century workforce, it is crucial to reverse these trends. First, it is important to recognize that girls and boys do not display a significant difference in their abilities in math and science. The cause for the gender gap in STEM achievement is social and environmental (Hill et al., 2010). Where gender differences consistently appear is in boys’ and girls’ interest and confidence in STEM subjects, starting at a very young age. For girls, this can be linked to a negative self-perception (Halpern et al., 2007). In grades 4, 8, and 12, females were less likely than their male counterparts to agree with the statements, “I am good at math” and “I am good at science” (National Science Foundation, 2003). And as early as elementary school, children are aware of these stereotypes and may express stereotypical ideas about who is suitable for certain S&E activities (Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001). Ultimately, these viewpoints matter. If students do not believe they are capable, they are unlikely to succeed.
This is where SciGirls can help. It is important to spark and strengthen girls’ interest and confidence in STEM subjects before high school, when academic choices will either open or close doors to postsecondary STEM studies and careers (Halpern et al., 2007). The SciGirls videos, combined with our gender-sensitive, inquiry-based activities and a community- focused website, can foster girls’ interest in STEM and shape their attitudes toward these fields. At the same time, SciGirls resources can advance gender sensitivity among educators. With this awareness, educators can recognize and avoid the unconscious behaviors that often contribute to STEM-focused climates that are unfavorable for girls.
Meeting the Challenge
We know that eliminating the gender gap is challenging work, convincing administrators, parents, or fellow staff of the importance of this mission. For help beyond the research outlined here, please see our suggested readings on page 18. Your efforts will not only help girls, but will improve the general climate in your educational setting and level the playing field for all learners.
For more information on the importance of STEM encouragement and for tips on how you can help, please see our tips for encouraging girls in STEM.