Saturday, 10 October 2015

Where are all the girls? Girls in STEM

Where are all the girls? 
How to increase girls’ participation in STEM
Of growing concern in the 21st Century is the lack of people involved in Science (including Computer Science), Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in both their education and their careers. As stated in the Education Minister’s foreword to ‘A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara,’ a national strategic plan for Science in Society,  New Zealand needs to produce a workforce skilled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to be globally competitive and meet the societal and environmental challenges of the 21st Century. Currently there is a lack of students and professionals in STEM fields therefore making this a high priority topic for education. An important factor to explore with regard to this is the low participation rates of women in certain STEM fields - namely Computer Science and Engineering. The participation of women in these fields is currently sitting around 20%.

In the early years of their education girls demonstrate a similar interest to boys in STEM subjects but their interest decreases as they get older and move from primary school, to middle school, to secondary school. Fewer women take STEM majors at university, less take advanced degrees in STEM subjects and even less are employed in STEM careers. Some argue that girls are just not as interested in these subjects and careers as ‘girls can do anything’ but the reality is far from that. Social and cultural influences still pressure girls to make gendered choices throughout their education and careers.

There are a range of issues that have a negative impact on the participation of girls and women in STEM curriculum and careers. Gender stereotypes create a binary construction of masculine and feminine with many STEM careers being seen as masculine. This creates a situation where girls have difficulty reconciling their concept of who they are as a girl, with the stereotyped male-dominated concept that society portrays of people involved in STEM careers, especially in areas such as computer programming, engineering and physics. It would be easy to think that society has moved beyond this but it was only a few years ago, in 2010, when Mattel published a book called “Barbie is a Computer Engineer.” Rather than this book being a celebration of the ‘girls can do anything’ concept it is the exact opposite. Barbie is working on a game to teach girls about computers. But, she is actually unable to write any of the coding herself – she has to get the boys to do that. Then, she manages to infect her computer, and her sister’s computer, with a virus and again she has to get the boys to help her. It is not hard to see the message this book is giving to girls.

Stereotypes regarding females and STEM subjects have a negative impact on girls and affects the education and career choices they make, reducing the likelihood they will choose STEM related pathways. Every time a girl hears her mother say she was no good at maths at school this reinforces the gender-stereotyped idea that, because she is a girl, she probably won’t be very good at mathematics. And, every time a girl visits a shop that organises their toys according to gender, these stereotypes are further reinforced. Lego is a perfect example of this. Gone are the days when Lego was just Lego. Now is it divided into boys’ Lego and girls’ Lego. This post by Lori Day gives a perspective on the genderising of what used to be ‘Universal Building Sets’ And while it is easy for people to argue that girls can easily buy the Lego that is targeted to boys if they really want it is not quite that simple. From birth, children are bombarded with messages about what is and isn’t desirable for their gender and what 7 or 8 year old child, thereby creating in them a subconscious bias - and what child can stand up to that - especially when they are not even aware it is happening.

I cringe when I hear people suggest that girls just aren't interested in STEM subjects, or they aren’t as good as Maths as boys. Stereotype threat, a social-psychological phenomenon that has been shown to reduce girls’ achievement in STEM subjects. Stereotype threat is present when one is concerned that their behaviour or achievement will be seen as confirming negative stereotypes. There have been numerous studies with maths tests that show that when girls have been told before a test that boys perform better on the test than girls their results are significantly lower than when they have been told that boys and girls perform equally on the test. Likewise research has shown that the merely having report on whether they are female or male before a maths test rather than after the test reduced performance for the female test-takers.

It is not just the stereotypes around girls that is the problem. Stereotypes are also present with popular perceptions of STEM curriculum and careers, especially computer science. These stereotypical perceptions are often built around qualities that are seen as being more desirable for males than females. Physical and social environments of schools and organisations impact on the participation of girls and women in STEM subjects. Cultural stereotypes create a perception of a gendered environment which is turn has a negative impact on the sense of belonging that girls and women will feel in that environment. Research into ambient belonging has shown that something as simple as a science fiction poster (as compared to a gender neutral poster) or a stack of soda cans (compared to water bottles) reduces the ambient belonging many females experience and therefore reduce the likelihood that they will be interested in working or studying that environment.

So, as teachers what can we do to encourage an increased participation of girls in STEM subjects and careers.
  • Get them involved early. Girls’ interest in STEM subjects reduces as she moves through school and early involvement will help to establish STEM subjects as being part of a girl’s identity before she hits middle school which is the time when large number of girls begin to disengage from STEM.
  • Teach girls about stereotypes and in particular stereotype threat. This helps them to be aware of stereotype threat and therefore counteract it. Alongside this use growth mindset strategies to increase girls’ self-efficacy with regard to STEM subjects.
  • Expose girls to STEM. This will help girls to develop understanding of the wide range of STEM careers that are available to them and also challenge stereotypes they might hold about STEM. Provide involvement with a variety of STEM activities and careers, along with exposure to women in STEM fields.
  • Educate parents and families about girls opportunities in STEM. Families are shown to be the people that have the most influence over the choices young people make and parents are also influenced by the gender stereotypes that reduce girls’ opportunities.
  • Look critically at the physical and social environment as well as the curriculum around STEM subjects in your school. Provide a range of opportunities for girls to work collaboratively and have activities that are hands-on, student centered, project-based and embedded in real-world contexts. I would recommend even going as far as having a girls’ only STEM clubs to help counteract the dominance of boys.
  • Explore STEM through a wide range of topics including ones that girls are traditionally interested in (such as helping people) but avoid ‘girlifying’ STEM to the extent that girls will genderise STEM into ‘boys-STEM’ and girls-STEM’. Try out e-textiles or paper circuits to involve girls in electronics at an early age.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you that girls just aren’t interested in STEM or that they aren’t naturally as good at maths or science than boys. I am always surprised how many people still hold beliefs along that line. Stand up against these statements - girls need you to.

So to sum this up … key factors to increase girls’ participation in STEM are twofold. One is involving strategies to increase the interest of girls and women in STEM fields and the other is changing society and the stereotypes that are built around firstly, what it means to be a girl or woman in our society, and secondly, around male dominated STEM fields. You cannot be expected to take on the whole of society but you can make sure that the experience girls have while they are in your school is one where gender-equity is paramount, and girls will have the opportunities to develop their STEM interests to the fullest.


  1. Fantastic Jill - you are doing such great work in this area! I couldn't believe it when I read "Barbie is a Computer Engineer" - quite shocking! Great list of what we can do to take steps in the right direction to get girls passionate about STEM. Thanks so much for sharing.:-)

  2. Great post. Lots to think about as educators, and particularly those of us who have daughters.

  3. Jill, you are a wonderful advocate and mentor for so many girls here in Christchurch. This is such an important and though- provoking post! It is also a real call-to-action with lots of practical tips! Thanks so much, Jill.

  4. Hear hear! Love you, love your work! Our girls are who they are because of what you started at Selwyn House all those years ago, and we will be eternally grateful! As teachers, we need to step up and be the voice that questions, and doesn't settle, or allow things to go unchallenged. Thanks Jill!

  5. Nice work Jill. It's a shame, and sometimes hard to understand, that this is still a problem. I wonder if its partly that girls and boys approach these subjects differently at a young age (boys just jump in with more confidence), and then girls wonder if they're actually any good - when we have proven that they are!! Started a Scratch club last term .... all boys. Sigh. It's a start!

  6. Awesome post Jill. Loving the images that speak a thousand words. Keep up the great work. The more we can encourage girls to take an interest in career pathways that have been dominated by males, the better off the world will be. A female perspective and touch can approach problems from a different angle. The world needs us all to collaborate with an open mindset to bring about the more possibilities.

  7. In a girls' school, gaining moment for STE(A)M subjects has less barriers than traditionally in a co-educational environment. Do you have any suggestions on how to draw in girls to be confident entrepreneurs of the future? What makes middle school girls less likely to follow a pathway in STEM. Is is our lack of opening the possibilities to them or societal pressures that undermine the positive work achieved in schools?