Attracting Girls to STEM Careers

Stephen DeAngelis

December 19, 2014

Earlier this year Maura Falk (@MfgMaura), Associate Editor, Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operations, wrote,My attention has been drawn to the issue of women in STEM careers a few times in the past couple of weeks. First, when Manufacturing.Net Associate Editor, Bridget Bergin, wrote about the lack of women in manufacturing and STEM careers, and the need for a modern Rosie the Riveter to drum up more enthusiasm. … The second time came I came across this issue was from a more surprising source — a children’s toy. [“Goldie, The Newest Pioneer For Women In STEM,”, 30 October 2014] I’ll return to the story of the children’s toy. First, I want to dig a little deeper into the problem of attracting women into STEM careers. “Why is there such a shortage of qualified women in the U.S. pursuing engineering or other STEM fields?” asks Marie Planchard (@mplanchard1), Director of Education Community for SolidWorks at Dassault Systemes. She notes, “Careers in science, tech, and engineering require persistence, but are worth the effort.” [“The Shortage of Women in STEM Explained,” Fast Company, 28 October 2014]

One of the reasons attracting girls to STEM careers is so difficult is because there are so few celebrated role models for them to emulate. Science writer Alexandra Ossola (@alexandraossola) would like to change that. She recalls how two women, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow and Gertrude Elion, daughters of immigrant parents, entered “a male-dominated field in the 1940s and [went] on to win the Nobel Prize.” [“The Female Pioneers Who Changed STEM Forever,” The Atlantic, 27 October 2014] Ossola writes:

“Twenty-year-old Rosalyn Sussman cut a steely, solitary figure in September 1941 as she started her doctorate in nuclear physics at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. ‘I was the first woman to have a graduate assistantship in physics there since 1917,’ she recounted to biographer Eugene Straus. She was the only female faculty member among 400, and there were no women’s bathrooms in the lab facilities — a major inconvenience, especially during the many nights she spent sleeping on the floor of the lab. Despite her confidence and persistence, even Rosalyn couldn’t have predicted that she would graduate several semesters early, make the jump to medicine, develop a revolutionary technique in the field of endocrinology, and win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977. Decades later, there’s no question that Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (her married name) and Gertrude Elion, Yalow’s contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate, were trailblazers in medical research. Yalow helped develop a technique called radioimmunoassay, a highly sensitive method for measuring hormone levels in-vitro, and Elion developed many new drugs, including the precursor to the first drug to treat AIDS, AZT. They are two of only 10 women to ever win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.”

Another reason that more girls don’t pursue educational opportunities leading to STEM careers involves the toys with which they play. All of the articles cited above talk about the importance of letting girls play with toys that tap a child’s fascination with making things. Falk writes:

“While scrolling through emails, notifications, and internet polls I stumbled upon GoldieBlox — a building toy equip with axles, pulleys, blocks, and ribbon designed to promote engineering interest in girls. The GoldieBlox site boldly declares, ‘We aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.’ Now I know a toy may not be earth shattering, but it caught my attention. I think it really struck me because of the large battle it is claiming to fight. The gender disparity in STEM career paths are truly staggering. According to 2011 census numbers, women make up 47% of the mathematical workers, 15% of computer science workers, 41% of life science careers and only 13% percent of engineers. These numbers coupled with a widening skills gap and a surplus of open positions — to me — makes the goal of GoldieBlox so important. This toy is targeting a demographic that in the past has not been as extensively encouraged in STEM. ‘I am creating GoldieBlox to inspire girls the way Legos and Erector sets have inspired boys, for over 100 years, to develop an early interest and skill set in engineering. It’s time to motivate our girls to help build our future,’ says creator Debbie Sterling.”

Planchard adds, “Research shows women decide to become involved in STEM or related fields very early on, at around one year old to 18 months, when we begin playing with toys.” She continues:

“According to studies commissioned by Microsoft, male students are more likely to pursue STEM because they have always enjoyed games and toys that are focused on their chosen subject area. In North America, adults make decisions about which toys we promote to children. As we do that, we slowly drive girls to think of other fields rather than STEM-related. Much of what we do as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles is subtle, but it is consistent through childhood.”

Ossola believes that toys like GoldieBlox are making it easier for girls to set their sights on STEM careers. She explains:

“In almost all ways, today’s aspiring female scientists face better odds than Yalow and Elion encountered. Toys like Goldieblox get young girls interested in tinkering with engineering problems, not just playing make-believe. In high school, girls are earning more credits in math and science courses than their male peers — a trend that began in 1994 and has grown ever since. The number of degrees awarded to women in almost every scientific field has also steadily increased since 1991, most notably in the physical sciences.”

Nevertheless, Ossola notes, “Many women start abandoning STEM majors early in college, according to research done by UCLA’s Jane Margolis. Although women enter college with the same high school STEM achievements as men, they are less likely to pursue a degree in a STEM field, often put off by the culture of male-dominated departments.” To learn more about the off-putting male culture found in male-dominated industries, read my article entitled “Girls, STEM Is Not a Four Letter Word!” Planchard asserts, “What we can do differently from the start is make engineering and other STEM endeavors an option with the first rattle we hand our girls in the crib. We need to continue by giving girls a really compelling image of their future selves, helping them bring creative energy to fun, problem-solving projects in the classroom and after school.” I completely agree with that assertion. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. With the holiday gift-giving season in full swing, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all need to reconsider the types of gifts they give to the girls on their list. Planchard concludes, “There is far more opportunity for products like GoldieBlox that acculturate girls differently.”

She also believes there is much more that can be done for older girls and women as well. “While it’s important to capture the interest of girls early by introducing them to engineering and other STEM related prospects,” she writes, “even when older girls and women do pursue STEM careers, the attrition rate is very high. So there is more we can do.” Parents, of course, play a critical role in how a child develops and the interests they pursue. But, Planchard insists, so do schools. “Schools have an essential responsibility to not only educate today’s youth in STEM but to also inspire an interest and passion for it. One of the most important things educators can do is make a connection for students that extends beyond the classroom.” I believe that including problem-solving projects in a student’s curriculum helps make that connection. Although making a connection between the classroom and the real world is important for all students, it is especially important for female students who may be inspired to continue their pursuit of STEM subjects.