American society has landed on a pretty clear consensus about what our scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians tend to look like. With some much-celebrated exceptions, movies, TV shows, and ads portray them as nerdy, white, and overwhelmingly male. Take, for example, the popular shows The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley.
Unfortunately, the demographics in the STEM community tend to skew in the same disproportionate direction. The National Girls Collaborative Project reports that although women comprise half of the total college-educated workforce in the United States, they represent only 29 percent of workers in the science and engineering field. Women comprise nearly 8 percent of mechanical engineers, 11 percent of physicists and astronomers, and just more than 35 percent of chemists.
So, what do we blame for the gender disparity in the fields that make up STEM? We need to fix the problem for the sake of our young people and our broader society. Here’s how:
1. Start introducing STEM at the elementary-school level.
According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress for Grades 4 and 8 in Mathematics and Reading, there was only a two-point gap between the math scores for male and female students (which was not measurably different from the assessment’s results in previous years). These results provide evidence that it is not natural proclivities that explain gender gaps in STEM.
What then accounts for the disparities in women entering STEM fields? One reason could be the lack of early access and exposure to them. Meaningful experiences during childhood provide a strong foundation in which girls may be more likely to “catch the bug.”
One example of what such a program can look like for young students is the STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools project, which I helped develop. SABES provides an interactive curriculum for students in Grades 3 through 5. Preliminary research shows the early exposure has sparked the students’ interests in STEM occupations.
2. Make STEM relevant to all students.
Both school-based and what are known as out-of-school-time programs should explicitly demonstrate to male and female students how STEM makes a difference in their daily lives. Programs should bring engineers—both women and men—into schools to explain how the fields can help better the local community and the broader world. Once female students internalize that STEM is relevant to their life, they may be more likely to develop an abiding interest in a related career.
3. Ensure teachers and counselors are encouraging STEM participation.
Data from the U.S. National Science Foundation shows that in high school, male students are significantly more likely to enroll in advanced-placement computer science courses than female students—81 percent male enrollment compared with 19 percent female. How does this happen?
Teachers are not concertedly inclusive when it comes to involving girls with opportunities in STEM. By not doing so, they are sending the signal that female students just aren’t as good at STEM, or have little right to be interested in it. This type of negative micro-messaging is all too common.
Research shows that white students, particularly boys, receive strong micro-affirmations about their STEM abilities, while girls and students of color experience the opposite. Teachers and counselors should be aware of this research so they can watch out for this reflexive messaging in themselves and their colleagues.
4. Changing society’s perception.
Of course, this will be the biggest task of all. Though there are fewer famous female role models in STEM, we can correct our societal shortsightedness by emphasizing those exceptions to the public. Men can also be part of the solution by speaking out and opening up the field to greater numbers of qualified women.
By systematically working to improve the school system as well as cultural perception, we can move the needle on this and close the gender disparity within STEM. And we must. We need all of the smartest thinkers involved in solving the future’s biggest challenges—not just half of them.
Carolyn Parker is director of graduate teacher education in the School of Education at American University, in Washington, D.C. She began her career as a science educator in the Peace Corps and then taught high school science in New York state and Florida. She earned her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Maryland, in College Park.