Increasing girls’ access to STEM education can narrow the gender gap and strengthen the field.
April 1, 2021
It's important to acknowledge the worldwide progress made in providing girls with equal educational opportunities. Global leaders like Malala Yousafzai, Michelle Bachelet, and Yara Shahidi propelled the work of closing the gender gap in education by increasing its visibility and relentlessly advocating for policy change. In fact, according to the Center for Global Development (CGD), “worldwide, women are more educated today than at any point in history.”
While this growth is worthy of celebration, we have yet to achieve complete gender equality in education. A deeper dive into the CGD data brings forth two significant points: Despite the progress, the gender gap persists, and globally men continue to be more educated than women. And although some countries have achieved gender equity in access to education, the results have not led to equal life outcomes for women. In other words, simply giving girls access to education is, quite frankly, not enough.
Achieving true gender equity is a complex, multi-layered challenge requiring progress and collaboration from social, political, economic, and educational spheres. So what can educators do to continue to push towards a more equitable future for women? One possible solution lies in giving girls a robust STEM education.
Why focus on a STEM education for girls, specifically?
A strong foundation in STEM provides girls with a unique skill set that builds their ability to be creative and global problem solvers. Girls gain access to a broader range of careers, learn to think critically about data and information, and are positioned to not only be smart consumers of technological advances but also to be the creators of those advancements. Education can play a significant role in helping to bridge gender equity gaps, but these benefits can only be achieved if we reimagine and reinvent the STEM experience for girls at the K-12 school level.
Educators must actively and intentionally work toward disrupting gender norms in STEM in classrooms and schools. Routinely providing positive reinforcement, giving girls agency and voice, and introducing diverse female role models in STEM fields can help build girls’ confidence in STEM classrooms and give them opportunities to see themselves in these disciplines.
Racial diversity is particularly important given that the numbers of women of color in STEM fields are disproportionately lower than the number of white women. In 2017, women accounted for only 29% of science and engineering professionals, despite making up over 50% of the college-educated workforce, according to the National Science Foundation. The racial breakdown of women working in STEM careers reveals stark disparities: White and Asian women represent the majority within the female STEM workforce (62% and 20.7% respectively). Yet Black women make up 8.6%, Latinas 7.9%, and American Indian/Alaska Native women account for only 0.3% of the female STEM workforce. When comparing these percentages to the racial breakdown of the general female population, it is evident that the gaps are wider for women who are Black, Latina, and American Indian/Alaska Native. Raising awareness of these statistics coupled with the active disruption of gender norms in STEM classrooms can serve as a stepping stone toward changing this narrative and increasing representation in these fields.
“Educators must actively and intentionally work toward disrupting gender norms in STEM in classrooms and schools.”
The skills girls learn in STEM classes make them marketable employees in a wide range of careers. These skills, sometimes referred to as computational thinking, are focused on logical, creative, and complex problem solving—skills that employers are increasingly seeking in potential hires. It is an educator’s responsibility to teach students, particularly girls, how to hone those skills and transfer them to other disciplines. In a world that is becoming more automated and dependent on technology across all fields and disciplines, having basic technology skills is now an expectation for almost every possible career choice. Just think about how COVID-19 immensely increased the need for employees in nearly any profession imaginable to be skilled in various digital tools. All signs point to this incorporation of technology across fields becoming the norm. Educating girls to become the creators rather than the consumers of these technologies increases their future employability.
The benefits, however, are not one-directional.
In order to truly advance and tackle the complex global issues we currently face such as the availability of clean water, global warming, and the pandemic, there must be a diverse set of voices and ideas present to push innovation forward. The benefits of increasing girls' access to STEM education are mutually beneficial for girls and for the STEM field. Girls are capable of not only contributing diverse perspectives to the field but also bring unique experiences and skills. Research shows that although there are no differences in math and science cognitive abilities between girls and boys, there is a significant difference in the capacity for empathy between genders—it’s higher for females. Building empathy is a critical first step of the design thinking process—one frequently used by engineers and scientists to solve complex problems. What girls contribute to the STEM field goes beyond diversification. They are capable of driving forward progress in STEM fields through their unique gifts.
What would be the outcome of giving girls the gift of STEM and giving STEM the gift of girls?
It would be an understatement to say the human race is being threatened with some of the most critical and complex problems in history. From rapid climate change to the unprecedented rise of a global pandemic, now is the time when the work of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and others is imperative. Having a diverse set of voices in those fields can assist in finding effective solutions to these problems. Additionally, the number of creators versus consumers of our current digital revolution would increase, consequently transforming communities into innovative and economically empowered spaces. This economic empowerment would disrupt the cycle of poverty for many traditionally underserved communities, particularly those in which girls do not have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
The work of giving girls access to STEM education must endure, and although it’s challenging, the profits are immense. If we dare to dream big, we can build on the efforts of Malala, Michelle, and Yara in the movement toward a gender-equal world where every girl is born with limitless opportunities to thrive, both as individuals and within their communities.
Briana Castaño is Director of STEM at Teach For America and is committed to ensuring that equity, inquiry, and culturally relevant pedagogy are at the heart of TFA's STEM programming and support across its network. Prior to joining TFA, she served as a school administrator at The Ann Richards School, a public, all-girl, STEM secondary school in Austin, TX.
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