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Girls, STEM Is Not a Four-Letter Word!

September 26, 2014


The website Ravishly published an article that asked, “Why is STEM Still a Four-Letter Word for Women?” [21 July 2014] The article lays out the facts that prompted the Ravishly staff to ask this question. It states:

“In the last few decades, women have made immense strides in both educational and occupational success, garnering higher degrees, wages and visibility in the workforce. Today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, women hold some 57% of the nation’s bachelor’s degrees, and more than 60% of master’s degrees. This represents a remarkable shift; between 1970 and 2012, the proportion of women age 25-64 with a college degree more than tripled. Naturally, this has translated into a far more formidable presence in the workplace as well. The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics revealed that, as of 2012, 57.7% of women were in the workforce. While this is still significantly fewer than the 70.2% of men represented, it marks a significant change from decades prior; immediately after WWII, for example, fewer than a third of women were in the workforce. It is particularly perplexing and frustrating, then, that in one realm of achievement, the proverbial glass ceiling remains stubbornly intact: Even after all this progress, women are notably under-represented in the fields of Math, Science, Engineering and Tech, aka STEM. The cold hard facts? Only 5.5% to 22.3% of civil, industrial, chemical and mechanical engineers are women, and they represent just a quarter of the workforce involved with computer and mathematical sciences. What’s to account for this discrepancy? Are women really less naturally inept at technical work? Or are deeply entrenched, nefarious social forces at play? More importantly, what can women do to overcome gender biases and make progress in these fields — which just so happen to drive an incredible amount of societal progress?”

This is not the first time I’ve addressed this topic. In a previous article entitled “Getting Girls Involved in STEM Education,” I pointed out some of the reasons that girls have avoided STEM subjects and none of them are genetic. As I pointed out in that article, perception is too often taken as reality and rarely is that a good thing. The staff at Ravishly asked seven accomplished women — “including a career expert, two women’s issues writers, and ladies who have themselves broken barriers in tech, engineering and biology” — to answer the question about why women aren’t better represented in STEM fields. You can read all seven of the diverse and illuminating perspectives here. One of the experts tapped was Patricia Valoy (@Besito86), a civil engineer. You can feel her rage when she writes, “Women fail at STEM because they’re socialized to believe they don’t belong there and then experience discrimination and lack of mentorship — pushing them into quitting when they do get there. It isn’t unusual to see respected scientists and educators claim that women aren’t born for STEM careers. In a Harvard speech, renowned professor and economist Lawrence Summers suggested that women don’t go into STEM careers because of ‘issues of intrinsic aptitude.'” Although Summers’ comments sparked outrage in some academics, he also received support. For example, Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar (@curiouswavefn), a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science, chided the famous astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson for disagreeing with Summers. [“Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes an excellent point, but Larry Summers is still right,” Scientific American, 22 April 2014]


One would think that university faculties would be the last place one would discover gender bias. Apparently, one would be wrong. Another of the experts tapped by Ravishly, Lisa Chau, founder of Alpha Vert, wrote, “Part of the trouble can be traced to college, where female students lack role models and do not receive equal support from faculty. Katherine Milkman of The Wharton School led research conducted at 259 top-tier schools across 89 disciplines, and found that professors ‘ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from white males. … We see a 25-percentage-point gap in the response rate to Caucasian males versus women and minorities.'” Another expert, Heather R. Huhman (@heatherhuhman), founder and president of Come Recommended, added:

“A recent study conducted by faculty at Yale found a strong gender bias among science faculty members. For the study, applications for a lab manager position were sent to hundreds of science professors at six leading research institutions. Half of the applications were labeled ‘John’ and the other half labeled ‘Jennifer’; every application was identical except for the name. Each professor was asked to rate the application and suggest a starting salary. The result? Applications containing the name Jennifer were rated as less competent and less likely to be recommended for hire than applications containing the name John. Her average starting salary was $26,508, compared to $30,238 for John. This bias against Jennifer was prevalent in both male and female science professors of all ages. There is a persistent glass ceiling in the science and technology fields for women. Though there have been many brilliant pioneers, such as Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell and Jane Goodall, both males and females tend to favor males because of the perception that men are more competitive and intelligent individuals.”

These findings come as no surprise to most women. Women have been underappreciated and undervalued throughout history. The truth of the matter is if they want to succeed in STEM fields, women are going to have to work harder than their male counterparts to earn their stripes. Fortunately, most women I know are up to the task. Laura Devaney (@eSN_Laura), Managing Editor of eSchool News, writes, “According to National Science Foundation statistics found on the National Girls Collaborative Project site, ‘girls are taking many high level mathematics and science courses at similar rates as their male peers, with the exception of physics and engineering, and are performing well overall.” [“6 STEM resources to engage women, minorities,” eSchool News, 6 August 2014] Devaney points to two resources that are specifically focused on helping girls succeed in STEM subjects. They are:

1. Girlstart — Through its comprehensive programming, Girlstart provides a year-round, intensive suite of STEM education programs for K-12 girls. Girlstart’s core programs foster STEM skills development, an understanding of the importance of STEM as a way to solve the world’s major problems, as well as an interest in STEM electives, majors, and careers.

2. National Girls Collaborative Project — The vision of the NGCP is to bring together organizations throughout the United States that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

I’m a big supporter of project-based education. 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. We believe that when students actually get to put what they learn to work they begin a lifelong love affair with STEM. Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen apparently share this notion. “In May 2012 they launched a campaign on Kickstarter to fund the development of their toys, which they dubbed Roominate. The idea: Girls get a set of pastel-colored pieces that they can assemble into a building or any other type of structure. Once the building is built, they can decorate it with the included paper and other embellishments and use the motor to add electrical appliances, fans or anything else that uses power.” [“How to Get Girls Into Engineering? Let Them Build Toys,” by Chana R. Schoenberger, The Wall Street Journal, 25 August 2014] Schoenberger notes, “Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen met in 2010, both were in engineering master’s programs at Stanford University — mechanical and electrical, respectively. But there weren’t many other women around. Chatting about why there were so few female engineers, the pair realized that they had both grown up with toys that encouraged them to build and make things, rather than traditional toys for girls. Ms. Brooks, now 26, received a saw for Christmas at the age of 8; Ms. Chen, now 25, had similar experiences with do-it-yourself playthings.”


The Christmas season will be on us before you know it. If you have a young girl in the family, you might just want to get her something for Christmas that allows her to use her imagination and make something. What you will really be doing is giving her a gift that will last the rest of her life — the love of learning. And you may help them shatter a few glass ceilings as well.

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