The Benefits of Engaging Girls in STEM

Nanda Krish, CEO of Wisewire shares must-read tips for getting girls involved with STEM.

In September 2016, Matt Frye took a photo at a Kansas City, Missouri, library highlighting the difference between Girls' Life magazine and Boys' Life magazine. The cover of the former had headlines about fashion, hair, and first kisses. The latter's cover featured the headline "Explore Your Future" with articles about how to become an astronaut, artist, chef, and more.

The difference was dramatic and shocking, so much so that the photo quickly went viral. Even in 2016, nearly a century after women gained the right to vote, in an era when women have occupied and continue to occupy some of the most prominent positions in the world in areas including politics, science, engineering, art, humanities, and more, popular culture continues to push beauty tips and hairstyles over ambition, self-confidence, and education.

As Frye’s photo underscored, such messages in pop culture are troubling in their potential influence on young women. Although women occupy prominent positions and pursue a wide variety of career paths, they still don’t occupy enough of these positions relative to male peers or pursue certain career paths in high enough numbers. The disparity for both careers and education is seen most acutely in STEM fields.  According to a 2015 survey, women represent only 12% of the workforce in STEM areas like civil engineering; the numbers are slightly better in other specialties (women comprise 39% of chemists, for example), but still not equal with their male counterparts. A 2015 survey of higher-education degrees demonstrated similar ratios across a variety of STEM majors.

What is the answer to closing the gender gap? How do we encourage women to apply their talents and intellect toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and math? Exposing girls to STEM between the ages of 8 and 11 is a great place to start. Exposure and immersion at this critical time can help establish a number of points:

●      That it is socially acceptable to enjoy STEM.

●      That it is normal for girls to excel in science and math classes as they approach middle school and high school.

●      That STEM is interesting and engaging and a discipline to be taken into consideration when planning for college and beyond.

It's easy to think “What's the big deal? No one's stopping girls from going into STEM.” While technically true, institutional sexism still abounds in STEM, dissuading girls from fully exploring their opportunities. Parents are encouraged to help children consider their career paths and academic specialties at pre-teen ages, with greater focus as they enter high school. With the way popular culture tends to focus on hair and makeup rather than education and science, it's easy for girls to have a blind spot to STEM, or even have negative (“that’s uncool”) associations with it . That means that a lot of future female scientists might be dropping out of the race before it even begins. Of course, not every girl will choose a career in STEM no matter the supports and encouragement in place, but knowing the option is there—and knowing how STEM truly is part of everything, particularly in the modern digital age—is something that we as a society owe them.

Studies have shown that workforce diversity is more than just a social ideal; it's good for business, too. The economic trickle-down impacts all areas of a business and its industry. Brand reputations benefit from diversity, and diversity also acts like a magnet for the hiring pool at large—more people want to work for a diverse company than one that is homogenous. Diversity opens up more marketing avenues, which then lead to increased exposure across new channels. Internally, diversity can lead to different perspectives and more creative solutions, which then push innovation forward. All of these elements can combine for a more successful company, which then opens the door to employing more people and offering more engagement.

From a global perspective, the idea of normalizing STEM for girls increases the potential for new, groundbreaking ideas to be posited and developed. The more great minds there are thinking about and working in STEM fields, the more likely it is that major advances in medicine, technology, and engineering will occur; women could play a key role in increasing the numbers of professionals in STEM overall and thus the speed and efficacy of such innovations. President Barack Obama recognized this in a 2013 speech on encouraging girls in STEM: “We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in (STEM) fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.” For every Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in our modern history, imagine what we have missed out on simply because opportunities for women have not been as plentiful. The implications for STEM innovation are literally world-changing and could affect economies, healthcare, and ways of life around the world.

How Can We Engage Girls In STEM?

The need to engage girls in STEM is clear, both socially and economically. So how can we accomplish this?

Exposure: Think back to the example of Girls’ Life magazine above. For girls reading this, the message is clear: hair, clothing, being pretty, and boyfriends are the things they should be focus on. But what if the Girls’ Life cover featured a young woman participating in a coding competition? What if it focused on scientific career paths or tips for acing that calculus exam? Shifts like this can make a huge difference in how girls perceive themselves, their interests, and their futures.

Normalization: For years, STEM materials have seemed at best nerdy and at worst otherworldly or incomprehensible. This created a negative stigma around STEM, despite the fact that it's part of our everyday life through modern day essentials and conveniences like Wi-Fi, smartphones, and wearables. From a curriculum perspective, normalization can defeat this stigma by weaving STEM lessons into other disciplines. For example, mathematics and music are deeply intertwined; physics provides the foundation for much of visual art. The challenge for teachers is to make these connections in clear, natural, and accessible ways.

Engagement: Much of learning takes place outside of the classroom. By forging partnerships with professional organizations and companies in the STEM field, schools and youth organizations can help girls develop an understanding of what STEM looks like in the real world. These partnerships can result in a range of academic and hands-on experiences:  job shadowing, interviews, tutoring, lab tours, mentorship programs, assistantship or research opportunities, and more. Dedicated programs, like after school coding workshops, science fairs and competitions, and engineering camps, can also help maintain girls’ interest in STEM beyond the walls of a school.

A New Normal

Engaging girls in STEM can benefit the entire planet. To truly maximize the cultural, social, and economic benefits of girls’ involvement in STEM, it must become the new normal. That starts with exposing a generation of girls to STEM from a young age so that no stigma of alienation or difficulty is ever established with STEM subjects. This is an organic and dynamic process, but educators can lead the charge by integrating STEM across the curriculum, creating both a sense of familiarity and a spirit of discovery. Then, when girls begin considering their future, countless new doors will be opened—and everyone will reap the rewards.

Nanda Krish is the CEO of Wisewire, an edtech company focused on enabling access to high-quality digital learning materials and technology-enhanced assessments. He has over 12 years of executive experience and is also the CEO and partner of the StartSmart Labs incubator. With Wisewire, Nanda aims to combine all of his expertise to grow a true edtech market leader, one that pushes technology boundaries while fulfilling the needs of educators and students worldwide. @WisewireEd