Did you know that despite similar interests and abilities in STEM subjects (defined here as science, technology, engineering, and math), women are considerably less likely to end up in STEM careers? Although women’s equality in education and the workplace has come a long way, stereotyping and biases (both subconscious and overt) continues to hinder women from choosing STEM careers, even if that’s what they are passionate about.
The good news: educating and empowering girls in STEM from a young age can overcome some of these barriers. As a teacher, you have the power to help girls follow their interests in any STEM subject and avoid limiting themselves because of their gender. Whether you’re an elementary school teacher or work with older grades, you have the power to make a difference.
Women’s History Month is just around the corner, and now is the perfect time to re-evaluate how you approach STEM in your school. Read on to discover the barriers that women in STEM face and how you can help counteract them through lessons and classroom strategies.
There Is a Gender Gap in STEM Education, and Here’s Why
Despite making up more than half of the U.S. workforce, women hold less than 25% of all jobs in STEM. This lack of women in STEM careers is statistically most profound in engineering, where only 13% of all practicing engineers are women. Additionally, women earn less than 20% of all STEM degrees, despite similar GPAs and interest in STEM subjects.
If neither interest nor ability causes this lack of gender diversity in STEM, then what is going on? The answer is likely multifaceted, but researchers point to a few common causes, including:[5,8]
- Lack of female role models in STEM
- Gender stereotyping against women who are interested in STEM
- Limited family-friendly flexibility in STEM careers
- Women in STEM feel left out of their career’s culture
For these reasons, even women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in STEM careers. Instead, they are more likely to work in education or medicine. Without counteracting these issues, girls will continue to face barriers to pursuing STEM careers, even if that’s where their interests lie.
How Teachers Can Support Girls in STEM in the Classroom
With such stark statistics showing a gender gap in STEM, it can feel overwhelming for elementary school teachers to combat it. But the earlier you teach girls about STEM in your class, the more likely they will be to pursue STEM education and careers as they get older. Plan plenty of science and math activities in your elementary classroom to interest girls in STEM, and create a safe space for them to follow that passion.
Introducing girls to female role models in STEM can also help them feel empowered. If you find that your history lessons focus heavily on famous men in history and science, it might be time to adjust your curriculum. Teach lessons about women who revolutionized the math and science fields, like Marie Curie or Katherine Johnson.
Additionally, one case study found that STEM programs can decrease gender gaps and improve interest and confidence in STEM for all students. Consider collaborating with local or popular programs that focus on involving girls in STEM, such as:
And finally, be mindful of hidden biases you might have towards women in STEM. Sometimes, subconscious (or implicit) biases can shape our actions without realizing it. Encourage both boys and girls to pursue their interests in STEM, and help every child in your class feel like they can succeed in the sciences.
Try These School Activities to Empower Girls in STEM
Create Personalized STEM Activities
Personalized assignments are one of the best ways to interest young students in STEM and help girls feel like they can succeed in math or science. Plan your STEM curriculum and activities around your female students’ interests to help them feel confident and assured they belong in the sciences.
If you have a student who’s passionate about art, for example, create paper-mache models of what you’re studying in class. Or if you know a student who loves sports, teach them about the laws of physics using a soccer ball as an example.
Hold a “STEM Women in History Day” in March
March is Women’s History Month. Use this time as an opportunity to teach students about the accomplishments of women in STEM fields. Create a lesson (or even a whole day) dedicated to the impact women have had in STEM and the many STEM careers that girls in your classroom can pursue in the future.
Invite a Guest Speaker
While it’s important to honor and teach students about the legacy of notable scientists, a women in your community can make a bigger impact. Invite women who work in STEM to speak about their career and answer student questions in your classroom. That way, girls in your class clearly see that they have a place in science.
Create a STEM Mentorship Program
For older students who are interested in a STEM career, a mentorship program can give them someone to answer questions and build a career plan with. Get in touch with women in your community who work in STEM fields and ask if they would be willing to mentor interested students in your class. If one-on-one mentors aren’t possible, group mentors can also be effective.
5 Children’s Books About Famous Women in STEM
One of the most powerful ways to fight back against the gender gap in STEM is by giving girls role models. As an educator, use story time to teach your students about famous and notable women in STEM.
These five children’s books about women in STEM will empower the girls in your classroom with the knowledge that they can do anything they set their minds to:
- Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker
- Marie Curie by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara
- Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space by Tam O’Shaughnessy
- Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson and Rebecca Huang
- The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter
- Nuno-Torrisi, D. 3 Ways to Excite and Encourage Girls in STEM in Your Classroom. Retrieved from wgu.edu: https://www.wgu.edu/heyteach/article/3-ways-excite-and-encourage-girls-stem-your-classroom1803.html
- Resanovich, M. 5 ways to support girls in STEM. Retrieved from nwea.org: https://www.nwea.org/blog/2018/5-ways-to-support-girls-in-stem/.
- Purcell, K.D. 5 Ways to Get Girls into STEM. Retrieved from edutopia.org: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-ways-girls-involved-STEM-karen-purcell.
- Herricck, L. Women in STEM Begins With Girls in STEM: 7 Ways to Support a Generation of Scientific Young Women. Retrieved from huffpost.com: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/women-in-stem-begins-with-girls-in-stem-7-ways-to-support-a-generation-of-scientific-young-women_b_5628908.
- Beede, D.N., Julian, T.A., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Khan, B., and Doms, M.E. Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation. Economics and Statistics Administration Issue Brief, August 2011, pp. 4-11.
- Liben, L.S. Developmental Interventions to Address the STEM Gender Gap: Exploring Intended and Unintended Consequences. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 2014, 47, pp. 77-115.
- Viadero, D. Researchers Mull STEM Gender Gap. Education Week, June 2009, 28(35), pp. 1-2.
- Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S.A., Montoya, A.K., and Jiang, L. Why are some STEM fields more gender balanced than others? Psychological Bulletin, January 2017, 143(1), pp. 1-35.
- Nazier, G., Hawthorne, M., and Henley, T. Narrowing the Gender Gap: Enduring Changes in Middle School Students’ Attitude Toward Math, Science and Technology. Journal of STEM Education: Innovation and Research, 2014, 15(3), pp. 29-34.
- Tornio, S. 8 Ways to Get More Girls Involved in STEM That Really Work. Retrieved from weareteachers.com: https://www.weareteachers.com/learn-how-to-get-girls-in-stem/.
- Barratt, B. How To Get Young Girls Excited About A Career In STEM. Retrieved from forbes.com: forbes.com/sites/biancabarratt/2019/01/25/how-to-get-young-girls-excited-about-a-career-in-stem/#439b40cb5601.
- Paterson, J. Engaging Girls in STEM. Retrieved from nassp.org: https://www.nassp.org/2019/10/01/engaging-girls-in-stem/.
- Milgram, D. How to Recruit Women and Girls to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Classroom. Technology and Engineering Teacher, November 2011, 71(3), pp. 4-11.
- Stoeger, H., Hopp, M., and Ziegler, A. Online Mentoring as an Extracurricular Measure to Encourage Talented Girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics): An Empirical Study of One-on-One Versus Group Mentoring. Gifted Child Quarterly, April 2017, 61(3), pp. 239-249.
- Connell, M. The Gender Gap in Engineering. Retrieved from scientistafoundation.com: www.scientistafoundation.com/women-in-science-news/the-gender-gap-in-engineering.