The 2013 freshmen class just started its school year at the Academy of Science, Engineering, and Technology, a STEM-based magnet house within Kane County, Illinois's Bartlett High School. However, of 88 incoming freshmen, only 25 are female. And this trend holds steady across other metrics of female educational success in the STEM fields. Young women take fewer Advanced Placement tests in gateway fields like physics and calculus, and only 14.5 percent of girls express an interest in STEM subjects or a desire for a career in one of the STEM fields once they reached high school (as compared to 40 percent of boys).
However, this gap does not always exist. Rather, evidence strongly suggests that it develops over a student's educational lifetime. Almost 90 percent of both boys and girls express an interest in science when they are in Kindergarten. However, over time, girls' interest erodes, possibly due to the effect of STEM fields not being considered "girly." A recent t-shirt from The Children's Place was pulled because the shirt listed a girl's best subjects as being shopping, dancing, and music, but left the spot for math blank. These sorts of cultural cues, while they may seem benign, have a cumulative effect of reinforcing stereotypes. Girls are told repeatedly that the STEM fields are too hard for them and that their route to excellence lies in other, more traditionally feminine areas. While such advice may seem like it is all fun and games, declining female interest in STEM subjects over time tells a different story.
Luckily, educational and political leaders are answering the call to close the gender gap. The Kane County, Illinois schools have undertaken several initiatives to engage girls in STEM learning. For the last three years, they have partnered with the National Alliance for Partnerships for Equity through a Motorola Solutions Foundation grant to bring about change. Initiatives that have come out of these efforts include a Saturday academy for girls interested in the STEM fields that emphasize hands-on learning that had over 180 girls sign up for 75 spots. Additionally, these funds are being used to allow female students to conduct STEM-related workshops for elementary school students, showing them that the teenagers and adults they look up to in science are both men and women. Elementary and middle grades intervention is being used to maintain girls' interest in STEM over time.
The goal of these initiatives is to target students when they are young. As a National Science Foundation study recently showed, 66 percent of 4th grade girls like science. Therefore, STEM learning initiatives do not have to create a love of science and technology; that love is already there. Instead, these efforts focus on nourishing these flames so that they continue to burn for years to come. Though the initiatives are relatively new and no hard data about their effectiveness exists yet, administrators are confident that these efforts to target elementary and middle school girls will pay off in an increased interest in STEM learning in high school and college.
The STEM education gender gap is not only helped by initiatives targeting young girls but also by prominent women expressing their support for STEM education. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth recently spoke on a panel about the importance of STEM education. "We need to be competitive, and have an economy built to last, where innovation will flourish," Duckworth said. "Manufacturing companies are looking to grow and expand, and need legislative help to support them through tax policy, import and export, and creating a pipeline of workers that have the skills to join these companies." As a female role model and policymaker, Congresswoman Duckworth's support for STEM education can help show young women that the STEM fields are as available to them as they are to their male counterparts.
The gender gap in the STEM fields will not be solved overnight. And once they enter college and graduate school, different issues can emerge (for an excellent take on this, see Mason, Wolfinger, and Goulden's new book "Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower"). However, by looking critically at the issues that diminish girls' interest in STEM fields, school systems can start to engage their entire student bodies in STEM-based learning without the fear of leaving anyone behind.