Resources & Tips for Encouraging Girls to Pursue STEM Subjects

By the time they’re six years old, not only are girls less likely than their male classmates to believe that their gender is “really, really smart,” they also begin to avoid activities considered to be for “really, really smart” kids.

Just 35 percent of these same girls will grow up to pursue a bachelor’s degree in what we typically consider those “really, really smart” fields — science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Those who do pursue a STEM education will end up occupying less than one-quarter of jobs in the male-dominated STEM fields across the U.S.

The lack of representation of women in STEM impacts women and girls of all ages. This guide aims to educate teachers and parents about the importance of encouraging girls to become engaged in STEM subjects from a young age and provides resources and suggestions for how to foster their interest and curiosity.

By the Numbers: Women in STEM

  • Just 19 percent of high-school-age girls enroll in advanced-placement computer science courses, compared to 81 percent of boys.
  • Only 35 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by women are in STEM fields.
  • Although women make up half of the country’s college-educated workforce, they make up just 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
  • Women of color made up less than 10 percent of working scientists and engineers in 2015.
  • In 2016, women working in STEM occupations earned 79.2 percent of what their male counterparts did, despite doing the same jobs.

Why There Aren’t More Women in STEM

Stereotype Threat
Although research shows that in high school, girls and boys achieve, on average, similar academic results, girls have far less confidence in their abilities. “Stereotype threat” refers to how a person may feel that they’re at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group, gender, ethnicity, etc. In this context, girls are at risk of internalizing the stereotype that women are not smart enough for STEM fields, and due to their fear of confirming that stereotype, they may choose not to pursue such subjects.

Stereotype threat can also be found in the workplace, particularly in environments where there are few women.

Lack of Representation
Take a moment to think of notable historical figures in STEM fields. Names like Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin likely come to mind quickly, but what about folks like Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Augusta Ada King? Fast forward a few decades, and how does popular culture portray the “typical” person who works in STEM?

Television shows like “The Big Bang Theory” primarily depict people who work in science and technology as both white and male, which does little to encourage women and people of color to become involved in the field. Furthermore, many women report having a lack of sponsors or mentors as a reason for leaving their STEM jobs.

Without proper representation — from secondary school textbooks all the way up to corporate boards at science and tech companies — it’s difficult for women to see themselves as viable and worthy candidates for STEM-related careers.

Income Inequality
As stated earlier, women in STEM fields made roughly 79.2 percent of men’s annual median earnings in 2016. This disparity is not unique to STEM fields; across all occupations, a woman’s average salary is roughly 80 percent of the average man’s who is working in the same field.

Within STEM, this inequality could be attributed to a number of factors, including internalized biases held by hiring managers and other decision makers, as well as the aforementioned stereotype threat. A woman who is not confident in her abilities may be less likely to demand equal pay or ask for a raise.

Workplace Culture
Thirty-two percent of women who enter STEM fields leave their roles within one year, citing their reason for leaving as being, among other things, feelings of isolation, hostile environments and a lack of effective mentors. Instances of sexism and gender-based discrimination are well-documented in the tech industry; for example, Silicon Valley is colloquially known as “Brotopia” and female engineers at companies like Google and Uber have sued their employers on the grounds of gender-based pay discrimination.

Fortunately, there are organizations and conferences such as Women of Silicon Valley that have been created to push back against this male-dominated culture and improve the workplace for women.

How Parents and Teachers Can Foster Girls’ Pursuit of STEM Subjects

Introduce Role Models and Mentors
There is no shortage of notable women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Whether it’s including these women in school coursework or introducing them via documentaries or books at home, it’s important to show young girls that women have found success in these fields. Parents and teachers can also connect their girls to role models or mentors in person through STEM-related class trips and/or guest speakers.

Encourage Curiosity — and Failure
Failure is a part of any process, particularly in STEM fields, but when confronted with open-ended problems, girls may be less likely than boys to take risks. During classroom work as well as at home, parents and teachers can encourage girls to embrace failure as part of the journey toward learning something new. Encourage and champion the values of hard work and perseverance, as opposed to simply praising a child’s natural ability.

Confront Your Own Bias
It can be difficult to recognize our own biases when it comes to STEM fields, but it’s vital that parents, teachers, guidance counselors and other influential figures don’t pass on “micro-messaging” to girls that could discourage them from pursuing these subjects. Adults can be aware of the language they use when describing these subjects and be sure to use diverse examples and case studies.

Make It Fun
At its core, STEM is about figuring out how things work. It’s not just about multiplication tables or balancing chemical equations. From learning about the ecosystem at the zoo to building an app, there are an endless array of interactive, creative and fun ways for girls to learn about STEM.

Resources for Parents and Teachers to Encourage Girls to Pursue STEM Subjects

There are a number of online resources, national organizations and educational materials available for parents and teachers looking to encourage their girls to pursue STEM subjects.

  • SciGirls: STEM-focused TV program from PBS for girls aged 8 to 12, available to watch online.
  • AAUW STEMPacks: Hands-on STEM resources ranging from app building to aerospace engineering
  • EngineerGirl: Focused on helping students understand and become interested in engineering careers.
  • Kodable: Programming education for kids as young as preschool.
  • GirlsWhoCode: Learn to code through free summer and after-school programs.
  • Techbridge Girls: Delivers STEM-focused education to school-aged girls in low-income communities.
  • ProjectCSGirls: Technology and computer science competition for middle school girls.
  • National Girls Collaborative Project: National network of organizations designed to encourage girls’ STEM participation.
  • Girl Scouts: Includes a kindergarten through grade 12 STEM-focused curriculum.


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