How Educators Can Empower Girls To Think STEM

Women’s History Month has given us a good opportunity to recognize the many strides women have made towards workplace equality, particularly when it comes to STEM representation. Historical names like Sally Ride and Marie Curie stand alongside current tech powerhouses such as Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and Diane Greene (VMWare, Google). However, even though the overall workforce gap has closed significantly (46.8% of the workforce is female as of 2015), a significant wage gap still exists— a gap that widens as women age.

At the same time, STEM continues to lag behind the national workforce gender rate, and while there are many initiatives to try and balance this, it goes beyond simply “hiring more women.” A significant cultural and social shift has to occur, and it starts by empowering girls in STEM long before they start applying for jobs. To achieve this, things have to start at the classroom level. Teachers and schools must position girls to succeed in STEM in the following ways:

A Successful Foundation

Every child needs a certain foundation in their academic environment to succeed. For girls, this is particularly important as they may be raised in a household that inhibits their potential, be it intentional or an unconscious bias. A school’s social environment can have a significant impact on a student’s success, influencing emotional, academic, and ethical development. This starts from the top down, with the principal’s leadership style and vision down to the teacher’s style. Schools also must regularly involve parents while establishing firm rules and boundaries for students.

This combination presents a top-to-bottom formula that creates a foundation for success. “Students who experience their school as a caring community consistently become more motivated, ambitious, and engaged in their learning,” says Eric Schaps, author of The Role of Supportive School Environments in Promoting Academic Success.

Battling Unconscious Bias

Once the foundation is in place, everyone involved should consider the unconscious bias that can work its way into lessons. A lot of this comes down to representation and encouragement. If girls don’t see many historical female figures, they receive the message that women do not make the same impact as men. If girls don’t see balanced examples in assignments of what women can do -- for example, if all of the science examples feature male scientists and engineers -- they receive the message that women can’t succeed in those roles. When those messages are combined, boys will also be reinforced with bad stereotypes, making it easier for them to consider girls inferior in those subjects.

Unconscious bias easily slips into discussions, curriculum, and presentations. The best way to counter this is to do an audit of lessons and projects, then make a goal to balance materials with strong female examples -- both historical and fictional -- receive equal representation (many online resources are available to help develop this). Coursera tested a theory about advertising STEM to women and they were more likely to click when the instructor shown in the ad was female. Being conscious and proactive about integrating these tips will allow the next generation to instinctively believe that anything is possible.

Presenting STEM to Girls

Culturally, STEM has been presented as the realm of male participants, and this demographic breaks down even further when you consider how it is normally presented across races. To counter this, STEM topics must be shown as inclusive and interesting for everyone. The following four approaches can open the door to STEM engagement:

Demonstrate that STEM is Everywhere: Science and math are everywhere if you look for them. This idea makes STEM accessible to every student. To establish this, teachers and administrators need to create an environment that fosters curiosity and exploration in all topics while also showing the crossover between STEM and non-STEM subjects (e.g. the importance of math in music or geometry in art). This will naturally develop a curiosity that extends to core STEM subjects, making it easier to engage on those topics.

Discuss future opportunities: The future is STEM-based. With the way our digital world connects just about every device these days, the need for a scientific mindset is more vital than ever before -- especially since computer/coding skills can adapt to nearly any industry. STEM career opportunities should be presented as exciting, inclusive, creative, and numerous, from innovative entrepreneurs to industry-leading CEOs.

Build Mentoring Relationships: The power of a good mentor can leave a lasting mark on anyone in their prime development age. For girls, having strong female role models is even more powerful given the pressures society and pop culture place on young women. By pairing older female students with younger girls, they can build a bond through shared experiences and a sense of belonging, as well as the normalization of talking with another female about STEM.

Tomorrow’s STEM Leaders Start Today

Empowering girls with STEM at a young age does much more than open career opportunities. By normalizing gender parity in these fields, this balance becomes the standard expected by a generation. By instilling an “I can” mentality, the self-confidence and self-worth of a young girl will be that much stronger. It all starts with an investment of time and energy at the academic level -- and the payoff will be seen in the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.

Nanda Krish is the CEO of Wisewire, an edtech company focused on enabling access to high-quality digital learning materials and technology-enhanced assessments.