STEM jobs are growing dramatically as technology continues to evolve. Between 2009 and 2015, the industry increased by 10.5 percent — double the growth of comparable non-STEM occupations. In spite of this exponential growth, women only make up 25 percent of the STEM workforce. What is keeping girls from seeking STEM careers?
Sexism and Sexual Harassment
Popular media may be focusing on the sexual harassment cases that keep coming out of Hollywood, but this culture is no less pervasive and damaging in STEM fields. It's become such a problem that U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California has introduced a bill explicitly designed to combat sexism and sexual harassment in the industry.
This bill, dubbed the Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019, authorizes more than $17 million a year for research into the causes and consequences of sexual harassment in these fields.
This bill is a long time coming. One report found that when it comes to sexual harassment and sexist behaviors, the academic and STEM arenas are second only to the military. About 58 percent of women in the field experience sexual harassment at some point in their career.
Like many other fields, STEM careers have long been considered a men's game, and that gender has dominated the industry for decades.
As with most industries, STEM careers are steeped in stereotypes — and many parents of budding STEM prodigies still believe them. When asked about their child's favorite subject in school, parents of boys will are more likely to say math than parents of girls. Both genders choose math equally when asked their favorite subject.
This belief in these outdated stereotypes leads many parents to discourage girls from careers in STEM, even if they're not doing it directly. Girls spend their lives listening to these stereotypes, and they affect their performance even if they're not thinking about it.
Once a girl has heard that "girls aren't good at math," that little voice will be there in the back of her mind every time she takes a test, discouraging her and stressing her out. This additional stress, in turn, negatively impacts her ability to succeed in STEM.
It seems strange to be talking about bad science when encouraging girls to try STEM careers, but it's one of the many obstacles standing between young girls and a career in the sciences. The idea that boys are made to build and girls are made to have children goes back centuries, but even today some authors publishing books perpetuate that outdated ideal.
Scientifically, there is very little difference between male and female brains. The psychological differences between the two genders are minute at best, and only occur on an individual level, so the broad descriptors can't and shouldn't be applied to an entire gender. Scientifically, men and women can succeed in STEM careers, but right now, only boys are encouraged to follow through with their love of math or science.
Helping Girls Choose STEM
It's up to us, as parents, teachers and allies, to encourage girls to consider careers in STEM. We need to do whatever we can to defeat those stereotypes and bad science that keep our young women from becoming the scientists, mathematicians and engineers they dream of becoming. It's possible — a young scientist named Katie Bouman just inadvertently became the face of the Black Hole project that was all over the news recently.
We need to learn how to encourage our daughters, sisters and friends rather than discouraging them from pursuing a career in STEM and potentially changing how we see the world.
How do you help your daughter to discover the STEM fields? What other ways can we encourage girls to pursue STEM? Leave a comment below!