Where Are All the Women In STEM?
The representation of women in many traditionally male-dominated professions such as law, business, and the military has grown tremendously in recent years. But in many STEM fields, particularly technical STEM fields, progress is being made at a far slower rate. Fields like computer science, physics, and engineering are still predominantly male (National Science Foundation, 2017). Women make up only approximately 13% of engineers and 21% of computer programmers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).
Percentages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018)
Not only are women missing out on potentially lucrative jobs in some of the fastest growing industries in the U.S., but this gender disparity also creates bigger ethical problems that impact us every day. When women are severely underrepresented in STEM, technical innovations that we rely on for our work and personal lives are made based solely on the opinions, judgments, and physicality of men (Williams, 2014). The result is smartphones that don’t fit women’s hands as well as men’s, health apps that ignore women’s menstrual cycles, and virtual assistants that have more difficulty answering women’s questions than men’s (Duhaime-Ross, 2014; Tufekci, 2013; Ryan, 2013).
Why Early Childhood Matters
Diversity of genders, races, ethnicities, and experiences in the STEM workforce is sorely needed, not only to promote innovation, but to ensure that a range of views representative of our diverse population are considered in the design of products and tools we all rely on every day. But what exactly can early childhood teachers do to help bridge this gender divide?
You may already be familiar with great programs like Girls Who Code or Kode with Klossy or other clubs, camps, and outreach activities for girls in late elementary, middle school, and high school. These programs are wonderful, but STEM initiatives aimed at girls in upper elementary school and above are often coming after girls have already decided they are not interested in these subjects. It is crucial for educators to focus on reaching kids while they are in their foundational early childhood years (around ages 4-7 years) and continue to support them throughout their education.
During these early years, children are naturally curious about how things work, making it a perfect time to begin exploring engineering and since. Moreover, young children are developing a range of gender stereotypes that they are beginning to apply to themselves and others during their early childhood development. Basic stereotypes begin to develop in children around two to three years of age (Kuhn, Nash, & Brucken, 1978; Signorella, Bigler, & Liben, 1993). Children generally develop the ability to label gender groups and to use gender labels in their speech between 18 and 24 months (Zosuls et al., 2009). As children grow older, stereotypes about sports, occupations, and adult roles expand, and their gender associations become more sophisticated (Sinno & Killen 2009). It is important to begin breaking stem stereotypes early – or better yet, preventing them from starting in the first place!
Tips for Early Childhood Educators
So what exactly can educators do to combat these STEM stereotypes and support girls’ interest in STEM? Below are 7 research-based tips that will help you engage girls – or children of any gender- with a positive first introduction to the world of STEM.
Start Young and Continue Strong
Exposure to biased media and experiences with gender stereotypes that happen during early childhood can have a lasting impact on girls’ interests, hobbies, and identity development as they grow up. Don’t wait until it’s too late to reach girls! Beginning in pre-kindergarten (or earlier) teachers should focus on exposing girls to them STEM through developmentally appropriate tools & technology, books, projects, and activities that will spark their interest and build their confidence.
Don’t Leave Stereotypes Unaddressed
Children are picking up stereotyped messages from their friends, television shows, advertising, at school, and just about everywhere they go. Whenever possible, stop and talk about the stereotypes you encounter. When you let stereotypes go unaddressed, you leave it up to your young child to process and ingrain the information on their own with the limited information they have. Sparking a conversation can be a simple as asking children for their thoughts and providing examples for why the stereotype is not true after all. When it comes to STEM, adults should emphasize that they hold all children to high standards when it comes to STEM subjects and projects.
Foster a Growth Mindset
Personal views about intelligence and failure can impact girls’ achievement and long-term persistence in rigorous STEM fields. Psychologist Carol Dweck spent decades researching achievement and success and developed the concept of the “growth mindset” (Dweck, 2002; Dweck, 2008). The “growth mindset” is the belief that intelligence is not fixed, but instead can change and grow incrementally through practice and hard work. You can simplify this concept by telling young children the brain is like a muscle that can get stronger with more hard work and practice.
Provide Diverse STEM Role Models (in books, media, and real-life)
Parents and educators need to be aware of what young children are seeing on an everyday basis in school, at home, in the media, and in books. Do they see engineers and scientists who look like them? Do they see women and minorities excelling at mathematics and using technology? Role-modeling is in children’s developing self-concept. It is important for girls to see scientists and engineers who look like them if they will imagine themselves in STEM careers when they grow up. Try introducing young children to both fictional characters and real-life role models from STEM fields that represent a range of genders, backgrounds, and experiences. Don’t know where to start? There are a variety of simple picture books that showcase fictional girls grappling with STEM concepts such as, Rosie Revere Engineer or Ada Twist Scientist both written by Andrea Beaty. For a look at real-world women in STEM, books like Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Catherine Thimmesh and Women and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky can help you begin a conversation or choose a historical woman to focus on. If possible, teachers should also seek out real-world female scientists and engineers to visit the classroom and speak to students. Reach out to children’s families for volunteers and you may be surprised to find connections within your own classroom network. Local colleges and universities can also be a wonderful resource for finding female role-models majoring in STEM fields.
Colorful rhyming books Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist by author Andrea Beaty showcase female protagonists exploring STEM. Available on Amazon.
Choose the Right Tools and Activities
For girls to succeed in technical STEM domains, they must be creators of digital content, not just consumers of it. Try introducing girls to apps where they learn to code (for example, the free ScratchJr programming application), kits that allow them to build and/or program robot (check out KIBO, Code-a-pillar, and Dash & Dot), or programs that allow them to animate cartoons and stories of their own creation (check out Toontastic). The best way for children to learn is by doing not watching. Young children especially need opportunities to build and construct with their hands, to practice fine motor skills, and to explore cause and effect through their own actions. Try to choose tools and technologies that foster hands-on explorations. Even without high-tech gadgets or kits, you can explore these skills through Duplos, Legos, blocks, and recycled materials.
Girls scanning a program with their KIBO Robot. Photo credit: The DevTech Research Group at Tufts University.
There are also a new crop of tools, products, and kits explicitly designed to appeal to the interests of girls. Check out offerings from GoldieBlox, Yellows Scope, and Joulez. While these product lines are typically designed for slightly older than early childhood (typically 8+) they offer wonderful ways to continue engaging girls through elementary school.
Foster Awareness and Compassion in Boys
We’ve been focusing explicitly on young girls, but where do young boys and men fit into this equation? When it comes to reading books about female engineers and scientists and meeting female role-models in STEM, be sure you are not leaving boys out. This is just as important for them to see! All children should grow up seeing diverse role-models from a range of backgrounds and genders in order to prevent stereotypes from developing later on. Remember, it is important to talk to boys about the issues of stereotypes and STEM diversity. Change cannot happen if only half the population is on-board.
Check-In on Your Own Behaviors and Biases
Finally, remember to reflect on your own behaviors, biases, and words. Your actions will speak much louder than your words to the kids you teach. Sometimes adults unintentionally expect and encourage certain behaviors and traits based on a child’s gender. Adults may be more apt to comment on how “cute” or “adorable” girls are and how “tough” or “smart” boys are. Remembering the tips for praising rooted in the growth mindset can help stop adults from accidentally using these stereotyped comments. In the classroom, teachers (all teachers- but especially female teachers) should be aware of modeling their own sense of scientific inquiry. Point out to kids when you have a hypothesis you’re testing, how you solved an engineering problem, or an instance math helped you solve a problem in your everyday life. Be sure to model problem-solving strategies when you don’t know the answer to a question a child asks rather than shying away from it. In this way, you are modeling your own belief of the growth mindset and your abilities to use the STEM skills you are teaching. Most importantly, model a joy for learning STEM. Show that you enjoy learning about new things, like coding, alongside your students- even if it is brand new to you.
More Resources and Support
For more detailed information on strategies for reaching young girls, check out Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood available on Amazon. You can also learn more about research on reaching girls with robotics in early childhood conducted by the DevTech Research Group here.
For a free webinar with resources from Wonder Workshop check out: Inspiring STEM Learning for Young Girls: Tips from Research and the Classroom.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018). Labor force statistics from the current population survey. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm
- Duhaime-Ross, A. (2014). Apple promised an expansive health app, so why can’t I track menstruation? The Verge.
- Dweck, C.S. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 37–60). San Diego: Academic Press.
- Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and math/science achievement. Carnegie Foundation
- Kuhn, D., Nash, S. C., & Brucken, L. (1978). Sex role concepts of two-and three-year-olds. Child Development, 445-451.
- National Science Foundation (2017). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.
- Ryan, (2013). Smartphones are made for giant man-hands. Jezebel. Retrieved from: https://jezebel.com/smartphones-are-made-for-giant-man-hands-1461122433
- Signorella, M. L., Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (1993). Developmental differences in children′ s gender schemata about others: A meta-analytic review. Developmental review, 13(2), 147-183.
- Sullivan, A. (2019). Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood. Rowman & Littlefield.
- Tufekci, Z. (2013). It’s a man’s phone. Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/technology-and-society/its-a-mans-phone-a26c6bee1b69
- Williams, G. (2014). Are you sure your software is gender-neutral? Interactions, 21(1), 36–39. doi:10.1145/2524808.
- Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 688.