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How STEM Programs Can Do Better

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses are receiving continued and increasing support from educators hoping to equip the next generation. STEM fields harness a method and a mindset that says: we can give kids the opportunity to think creatively and experience things hands-on, which is relevant for the modern age.

However, STEM programs fail to provide a diverse experience for boys and girls alike at times. Girls are less likely to be utilizing a STEM program, and unfortunately that trend continues on into adulthood.

Women in computing careers are outnumbered significantly by men. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that in 2017 women accounted for only 26 percent of the computing workforce.

It should come as no surprise then, that the disparity in numbers occurs long before girls are old enough to fill out a job application. Still today, boys are more likely to take engineering and computer science courses than their female counterparts.

Because of this, it’s vital that we are constantly reassessing how we can best encourage girls to participate in the educational opportunities that will allow them to become the most educated, most empowered version of themselves. For many girls, that means STEM-based learning systems; for some, that’s easier said than done.

Why Girls Are Less Likely to Participate

What research points to is the reality that gender bias and stereotypes are the largest barriers keeping girls from participating in programs that would teach them foundational skills like coding.

A research report by the American Association of University Women claims that a girl’s perception of herself and the qualities required to succeed in STEM fields matter more than her actual abilities. They note, “Many people claim they do not believe the stereotype that girls and women are not as good as boys and men in math and science. However, even individuals who consciously refute gender and science stereotypes can still hold that belief at an unconscious level.

For example, a girl who perceives coding as a masculine skill, even subconsciously, will feel that that perception is correct when she enters a coding class wherein the majority of students are male.

Indeed, according to a study by the Psychological Bulletin there are three primary factors that can account for female lack of participation:

  • Masculine cultures that signal a lower sense of belonging to women than men
  • A lack of sufficient early experience with computer science, engineering, and physics
  • Gender gaps in self-efficacy

This backs up the idea that merely perceiving a field as masculine is enough to dissuade a girl from pursuing the subject.

What We Can Do About It

One of the best things that educators can do to combat this is to change the atmosphere surrounding coding and other STEM-related topics. If girls are struggling to recognize their place in the field, then we must make it as clear as possible that that’s not reality. There are some key things that need to happen for girls to feel at home in STEM contexts.

Vocalize female accomplishments: One of the most impactful ways to showcase that coding isn’t a masculine ability is by demonstrating that women have and currently excel in STEM fields. Give them role models.

There are female coders who have changed the world with their abilities, and those women have paved the way for tomorrow’s female coders. Additionally, while 73 percent of professional coders are male, the work of female coders is actually more successful according to a recent study.

Lauren Camera reports for U.S. News, “Researchers analyzed data from GitHub, a San Francisco-based open source software community with more than 12 million users who collaborate on coding projects by suggesting solutions to various problems. By tracking users using social networks and Google, the researchers were able to obtain the gender of 1.4 million users, which allowed them to assemble the largest scale study of gender bias to date.”

What they found was that the work of female coders is accepted more often than the work of male coders. But there was a catch: This was only true if the female coders did not disclose their gender. Thus demonstrating that the way we assign “male” or “female” labels to fields of work can color our perceptions of an individual’s output.

Affirm that skills can be learned: A barrier to girls pursuing things they’re unfamiliar with is the misconception that skills and traits are the same thing. If kids feel that their lack of knowledge is a static component of their life, then they won’t be motivated to pursue coding or any other related field.

One of the main foundations of STEM-based learning is that it removes inhibitions; if it’s creating obstacles, it’s not doing what it should.

Thomas Debass, Deputy Special Representative for Global Partnerships for the U.S. Department of State recently wrote a piece about a STEAM program for girls for Code Like a Girl entitled “Imagination Is Your Only Constraint,” and in it he quoted a STEAM (the “A” is for “art”) student who wrote, “Technology has the ability to open previously closed doors and provide women and girls with opportunities that have not been available to them in the past.”

When girls consider whether or not to pursue STEM or STEAM program, what needs to be clear is that the point is not to demonstrate who they are currently but who they can become.

Understanding that continues to be valuable as girls enter the professional world. As Bree Brouwer reports for Asset Panda, “Nearly a third of companies hire new workers while laying off old workers in order to get the skills necessary to support restructuring.” Skills can be gained over a career as well as over a lifetime.

Appeal to different personalities: There has to be a willingness among educators to create spaces that accommodate more than one type of learner. Girls who have never participated should not feel that their other interests or their learning style is a barrier to success.

One example of making the space more inclusive is to advocate for STEAM-based learning to appeal to learners who view themselves as artistic, humanities-minded students.

As the education professionals at Concordia University write, “Since girls and women are underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, developing STEAM projects helps girls become familiar with these fields at an early age. Early exposure can increase their chances of exploring these fields further as they get older, and high quality STEAM projects will still benefit boys as well so that all students are able to acquire these 21st century skills.”

It’s a great thing that STEM has received the attention in recent years that it has. Any effort to give students better tools and more dynamic experiences is a worthwhile effort. However, true success will only be feasible if STEM-based learning experiences are accessible across the board.

The future successes of women in coding and in all technology fields require that girls are confident that there is space for them in STEM classrooms. Their perceptions are shaping their participation and their experiences; thus it’s vitally important that we all foster the mentality that any girl who wants it has a place in the future of STEM.