Campaigns to Encourage Girls in STEM Fields Must Begin Early


Several theories exist about why women are underrepresented in math and science jobs. Parents and toy-makers discourage girls from studying the two subjects, as do teachers, according to Claire Cain Miller, writing for The New York Times. The lack of role-models for girls in those fields has girls growing up thinking they would not succeed in them.

A study published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which has pointed out that teachers have unconscious biases, has shown how powerful a bit of encouragement can be. It posits that early education experiences can influence success in math and science courses that students later choose, and ultimately can effect the jobs they get and the size of their salaries.

The effect becomes more dramatic when families have a more educated father then mother and for girls from lower-income families, says the study.  Many of the fastest growing and highest paying fields, like computer science and engineering, could be entered by girls if teachers could reverse their feelings that boys alone should fill these professions.

“It goes a long way to showing it’s not the students or the home, but the classroom teacher’s behavior that explains part of the differences over time between boys and girls,” said Victor Lavy, an economist at University of Warwick in England and a co-author of the paper.

Research has shown that college professors and employers discriminate against scientists who are women, so it should not surprise that the bias starts earlier. Only 18.5% of high school students who take the Advanced Placement computer science exam are females. Of the computer science degrees earned in college, only 12% are earned by woman.

Starting in 2002, researchers kept track of Israeli students from sixth grade to the end of high school. The students were given one test which was graded by an outsider who did not know the identities of the students and another which was graded by a teacher who knew their names. In the anonymously graded math exam, girls performed better, but on the test graded by a teacher, boys did better than girls. This did not occur in other subjects, but in the area of math, teachers overestimated the boy’s abilities and underestimated the girls.

This has long-term effects on student’s attitudes toward the subjects. And, because boys seemingly performed better and were then encouraged, they also performed better on national exams. This same testing took place, not only Israel, but in several European countries, and researchers expected the results to apply in the US, too. This stereotyping of women’s ability to perform well in challenging intellectual environments is not limited to STEM fields, nor does it only apply to girls in elementary school.

Leslie Corbly of the Deseret News cites Cynthia Fox in an article for Bioscience Technology, who reports on a study conducted by Princeton philosopher Sarah-Jan Leslie and University of Illinois psychologist Andrei Cimpian. The male and female participants who believed that it was necessary to have an innate talent to be successful in their fields were also more likely to agree with this statement:

 “Even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high-level work in (discipline.)”

In the study, philosophy was the most brilliance-emphasizing discipline of all. To fight the stereotyping, a group called Girls Who Code attempts to encourage girls to pursue technological careers. As a result, girls who thought they did not have the ability to program realized, through the organization’s summer immersion program, that they could.

Meanwhile, a program at Northern Illinois University, called STEM Divas, is targeting ‘girly-girls’ ages 7-10 to make earrings using a 3-D printer, craft wooden jewelry boxes with saws and electric screwdrivers, and combine chemicals to make glittery soap or lip balm, writes Marie Wilson of the Daily Herald.

“There has been research done that girls lose interest in the science fields in middle school, so that’s why we want to do it right before,” said Pettee Guerrero, a STEM Outreach associate for Northern Illinois University. “There’s so much going on, their minds are everywhere. They’re changing schools, changing friends, trying to be cool, and science is not really cool in their eyes. That’s why there is this interest being lost.”

According to The Irish Times’ Grainne Faller and Louise Holden, girls in Ireland are having the same problems as the girls in the US. Ten years ago 47% of college freshmen in the fields of science, math, and computing courses were women. By 2013, the number had fallen to 40%, and only 16% of entrants in the schools of computer science were female. Out of almost 118,000 people working in STEM in Ireland, only a quarter are females.

In Europe, less than 7% of tech positions are filled by women. A 2014 Accenture survey found the problem to be societal. Irish teenage girls, like the ones in the US, see STEM careers as being for boys.

Parents seem to be ill-advised about STEM careers, too. One initiative to get girls interested in STEM is a project called I Wish.

“We want to do something proactive about the Stem skills shortage rather than being reactive all the time,” says Gillian Keating, President of the Cork Chamber of Commerce. “We have to catch girls at a young age. We have to show them what being an engineer, for example, means. I think a key problem is that girls simply do not know what the job options are.”