The 2016 blockbuster film Hidden Figures did a lot more than shine the spotlight on the achievements of three black mathematicians who played key roles at NASA during the Space Race. It led to the U.S. State Department’s creation of the Hidden No More program, which is inviting 50 women who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields across the world to the U.S. And it illuminated STEM for girls and women — particularly girls and women of color — in the 80 countries where it was screened.
Women make up 50% of the U.S. workforce but only about a quarter of STEM jobs
A little help from Hollywood doesn’t hurt, but it’s organizations around the world that are arming girls and women with what they need for STEM success. And the gender gap is wide: Although women make up 50 percent of the total workforce, they make up only about a quarter of STEM jobs. In areas such as computer science and engineering, the numbers are even lower.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
The STEM gender gap starts early, experts say. In the recent report “Cracking the Code: Girls’ Education in STEM,” the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed that girls tend to lose interest in STEM classwork between early and late adolescence in particular, and that gender stereotypes and biases compromise the quality of education and limit choices for girls and women. Once girls reach secondary education, they choose far fewer advanced math and science courses than boys.
Socialization on several fronts — both in and out of school — is to blame. Interactions with parents, family and friends set early gender roles favoring boys for STEM, and those are reinforced over time through interactions with teachers and fellow students. As part of the UNESCO report, researchers found that classroom interactions in countries around the world indicate that girls receive less classroom instruction, ask fewer questions and get less praise in STEM subjects than boys. The organization’s review of the curriculum programs in primary and secondary schools of 78 countries followed suit, finding that math and science textbooks and learning materials nearly always include gender bias. In India, for example, more than 50 percent of illustrations in primary educational math and science textbooks show only male characters, compared with 6 percent showing only female characters.
Learning assessments have revealed that girls can work against that grain. Recent International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) assessments found that eighth-grade girls in participating countries perform better than boys in computer and information literacy, with an average difference of 18 points. That success, however, does not extend to how girls think they did: Girls’ perceptions of their skills are significantly lower than that of boys, research shows.
The number of STEM badges the Girl Scouts recently introduced
Organizations are tackling the issue head on. The Girl Scouts recently introduced 23 new STEM badges and will introduce six new space science badges in 2019. And the YMCA made special efforts to encourage girls nationwide to take on STEM activities in its camps this past summer.
Smaller organizations are taking action, as well. In Louisiana, the Electric Girls organization hosts summer camps and in-school and after-school programs that inspire young girls to pursue technology studies. In Virginia, ProjectCSGIRLS hosts a national computer science competition for middle school girls in an effort to nurture interest in science, math and technology. And in Arizona, the nonprofit LITAS for Girls works to inspire middle school-age girls to set their sights on computer science and STEM careers by teaching teamwork, brainstorming and presentation skills in addition to core computer science lessons.
Presentation skills are an important complement to STEM skills because they help girls gain confidence, says FedEx Young Innovator Simone Braunstein. Now a sophomore at Harvard University and the CEO of Paradox Robotics, Braunstein was actively involved in Black Girls Code programming in high school. “It was so important in helping me get to a place where I’m able to talk about things like soft robotics and be comfortable discussing it academically,” she says.
Scientist Moms Turned STEM Innovators
Companies are joining the charge too. Portland, Oregon–based FedEx customer and 2017 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest winner Yellow Scope, for example, was born after Marcie Colledge and Kelly McCollum met at their children’s elementary school as volunteers working on the school’s STEM programs, including family science nights and science fairs. They quickly recognized a need for STEM products geared toward girls. “The more rigorous chemistry and physics kits are marketed to boys,” Colledge says. “Girls deserve better in the toy aisle.”
Girls learn best when projects are creative and open-ended, she says, so Yellow Scope kits are hands-on and include a detailed lab notebook with room for girls to draw their observations, note their results and design their own experiments. The kits are available through Yellow Scope’s website and through specialty children’s book and toy stores throughout the U.S., Barnes and Noble, and Indigo bookstores in Canada.
WATCH: Marcie Colledge describes how kids’ interests and skills are evolving and what it will mean for innovation in the future.
Colledge hopes Yellow Scope is making a difference. “Keeping girls interested in science through middle school and beyond is critical for innovation in the future, since diversity is a huge driving force of innovation,” she says. And the littlest changes can have a big impact. Start with changing the image of how the world sees a scientist “as a white man in a lab coat working alone at the lab bench,” she says. “Science is so much more than that — it’s creative and collaborative and relevant. Scientists are solving some of the world’s biggest problems.”
WATCH: Kelly McCollum discusses how she encourages her daughters to tackle difficult STEM assignments.
- See how Yellow Scope is inspiring girls to experiment with science.
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