The demand and supply of STEM jobs can be balanced if we remove biases that discourage girls to consider STEM studies.

Last Modified: 19 Apr 2013 07:54

Reprinted with permission by AL JAZEERA English

By Cynthia Yung

Who shot JR this time? The second season of Dallas II reworked a famous cliff-hanger with the real-life passing of an icon. Larry Hagman, back on television with a mostly new cast, brought back the wheeling, dealing larger than life, back-stabbing, rancher and oil tycoon stereotypes, but with a subtle twist. This time, the brains of the oil operations belong to a college educated Latina engineer who knows how to find oil that others have missed.

Her name is Elena Ramos, and she is the daughter of a cook. She is not typical of the old Southfork clan or the current Texas student population. You see, although a majority of students in post-secondary education are women, they are not studying science, technology, engineering and math (commonly referred to as STEM).

According to the Department of Education, only 31 percent of the degrees and certificates in STEM fields in 2008-2009 were earned by women. A new measure of educational success in Texas by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems shows that for 883,000 students starting 8th grade in 1996-98, the fraction getting a degree or certificate was only 21.9 percent. Among African American and Latino populations, it was less than 13 percent.

Female students start out quite similar to their male counterparts, with the same interest in science and math in elementary school. Somewhere along the way, female students start to question whether “girls are good at math”. These micro-biases start early, with the media’s portrayal of women, and the lack of women role models in non-traditional STEM jobs.

Math questions

In the classroom, teachers may ask boys to answer math questions at a higher proportion than girls, or girls may assume the note-taking role during science experiments and boys do the “work”. Some educators are working to solve this problem. The NAPE Education Foundation established a STEM Equity Academy for teachers to address bias and encourage greater participation of girls and under-represented populations in STEM careers.

In middle school, a greater percentage of girls in 7th or 8th grade take Algebra I compared to boys. Girls of every race and ethnicity pass Algebra I at a higher rate than their male peers. High school girls evenly represent in biology and outnumber boys in chemistry, but are underrepresented in physics. Girls are equitably represented in rigorous high school math courses. In Advanced Placement (AP) mathematics (calculus and statistics) however, boys consistently outnumber girls. And by postsecondary education, women are over-represented in traditional career paths like education, health science and marketing.

We used to talk about getting more girls and young women into the STEM pipeline. It now appears that we have done that – but the pipeline has a leak.

To plug that leak, it will take mothers, fathers, teachers, post-secondary institutions and business role models working together and reinforcing messages that STEM careers are relevant to female students. These are all influential sources of cultural cues and messages that can shape how girls and young women feel about the STEM fields and their place in them.

Girls Scouts of Northeast Texas conducted a research on scouts who chose STEM careers, and one thing they all had in common was encouragement from their fathers who were active in their scouting experience. The girl scouts expressed the belief that the shared father-daughter experience was meaningful, and that having a male role model challenging them to do something non-traditional left a lasting impression on them.

The girl scouts also said that one badge more than any other left a lasting impression on them: the car care badge. The reasons given were varied, but the women said that it was “empowering”, and that “no one expected you to know anything about cars so it was nice to see people’s surprise that you could ‘talk car'”. Others said that learning car care with the scouts “introduces you to practical engineering”, and that “it was just so interesting to learn more about something you grow up with that is actually very technical”. In most cases, this was not a badge that they freely chose, but one that were coerced into. Later, though, they learned to appreciate it.

Female role models

The University of Pan Am has a programme that reaches out to Latina mothers and their middle school daughters. The programme plants and nurtures a college-bound identity in students and their moms who often have not had a college experience of their own and traditionally want their daughters to stay close to home. The moms learn to support their daughters throughout their education journey and to go to college even if in a different city.

College mentors, female role models and mothers team up to deliver a unified message about graduation and expanded career choices. College completion rates for this programme are significantly higher than for those in the county who are not in the programme. The most recent six-year college completion rate for high schools (classes of 2002-2004) is 23.1 percent of all high school graduates. In comparison, the Mother Daughter programme has seen a 55.7 percent college completion rate for its 1999-2007 participants and this does not include those students who are currently enrolled in master’s or doctoral programmes.

Businesses that employ STEM graduates, whether they have an associate’s degree or PhD, would benefit from a steady supply of local talent, and the more they can do to demonstrate how their jobs, products and services contribute to society, the more it will help female students identify and relate their aspirations to STEM careers. Girls overwhelmingly report a desire to help people and make a difference in the world, but many do not have the exposure and support to understand how STEM fields can help them to do that.

Though the American job market is in a woeful state, we have almost four million job openings, many of which require STEM skills. We could close the skills mismatch and put more people to work if we encouraged more students, especially women and girls, to pursue STEM degrees. Otherwise, this skills imbalance will grow as the student population continues on this trajectory: more and more female students, but fewer STEM degrees.

The demand and supply of STEM jobs can be balanced if we focus on a range of influences and remove biases that discourage girls to consider STEM studies. An army of Elenas can be employed if we pull together and encourage girls to see themselves as scientists, engineers and analytical geniuses.