One day my daughter asked a math question and I answered, “Ask Daddy, he is better at math.”
A burning sensation of shame washed over me when I realized what I had said. My husband does happen to be better at math, but she was in second grade so I am sure I could have easily helped her. The reason I felt shame is because research tells us that by third grade girls start believing that “math is for boys.” I had reinforced an idea that society plants in girls' heads early on: that boys are better at math.
In 2015, women filled 47% of all U.S. jobs, but held only 28% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs.
Why does the gender gap in STEM professions matter? In a world facing the need for alternative energy sources, the reemergence of previously eradicated diseases and higher temperatures, society is in need of creative solutions. Equal representation and increased diversity will empower STEM professionals to be more innovative and to create products and services that better represent all users. In addition, jobs in these areas offer higher-than-average salaries, and STEM job growth is outpacing the rest of the economy by 300%.
Research has identified several factors that sway girls from being interested in STEM subjects, starting at a very early age. First is the idea of gendered socialization.
Girls and boys are encouraged and incentivized to participate in distinctly different experiences as children. Boys have historically been supplied with different materials (i.e., toys) and activities than girls.
Women are also discouraged from the STEM professional fields because they are inundated with socialized ideas and negative stereotypes, specifically about women's subpar math abilities. Second, peer group influence can turn girls away from STEM-related courses. Third is the stereotype of people in STEM professions – that they tend to be male and encounter social isolation.
I have learned better ways to communicate with my daughters about science, technology, engineering and math. While it is not hard to encourage them, it does take a different approach than you may think.
Telling our daughters that they “can be scientists” isn't enough. We must engage them in interesting activities and show them how STEM adds to our lives. We must show our daughters that they have a place in STEM fields and that they can do STEM-related activities.
We can all start by encouraging girls to ask questions about the world around them and then seek the answers. Ask young girls in your life how things work or what they would do to solve a problem they identify in their community. Encourage girls to speak up and raise their hand in science and math class.
Popular brands, such as Lego, have started to create girl-branded building sets, but we should also play games with our daughters on computers and encourage them to work on coding apps. All screen time is not equal; math and coding apps can help inspire girls' confidence in technology. We can also work to point out to our daughters that science, technology, engineering and math support people in helping professions and can cause breakthroughs that move entire societies forward.
Working to connect STEM-focused professions to the outcomes they produce will help girls see why success in STEM classes should matter to them.
It is also good to encourage our daughters to seek mentors in areas they care about. If she has interest in math at a young age, help her find women in that profession she can look up to. Locally, Purdue Fort Wayne has female engineering professors. Other organizations that employ females in STEM positions include SDI, Rural Sourcing, DePuy and Indiana Michigan Power, to name a few.
Her peer group also matters, so finding like-minded friends, in programs such as the Girl Scouts, will help nurture her interest in STEM.
Beth McCord is chief advancement officer for Girl Scouts Northern Indiana-Michiana.