Encouraging Girls to Pursue STEM

On the fourth Thursday of April, we celebrated International Girls in ICT Day. With our increasingly digital world, expertise in Information and Communication Technology has become imperative in the workplace. The UN estimates that there will be around two million vacant jobs in the ICT sector within the next five years. However, even as the industry rapidly grows, its internal gender imbalance remains concerning.

Currently, women are still far outnumbered by men, as they only make up 28% of the workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Gender discrimination in the workplace has also pushed many women out of STEM fields. Studies show that half of the women in tech leave by the time they turn 35. The pandemic has only exacerbated this gender imbalance. With women predominantly shouldering the burden of childcare and family life, 50% of women reported that they believed the pandemic slowed their career progression.

We can trace this gender imbalance in the workplace all the way back to our education system. The American Association of University Women termed a “confidence gap” in STEM subjects that began as early as third grade. Research has shown that many girls lose confidence in math in third grade. In contrast, by second grade, boys are more likely to feel confident about their abilities in math.

This confidence gap then continues into higher education since male STEM majors far outnumber female STEM majors. Statistics from 2015 show that only 18% of computer science degrees and 20% of engineering degrees went to women. The lack of women studying STEM subjects then leads to a lack of women in technology in the workplace.

One reason for the lack of women in STEM education is that they have a lack of role models. The faces representative of success in STEM fields, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Apple’s Steve Jobs, are all predominantly white and male.

Even though there are still many successful women in tech such as Susan Wojcicki of Youtube, Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble, and Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, they don’t receive the same visibility as their male counterparts. Without seeing faces like theirs in the technology sector, girls are less likely to see a career in technology as a viable path.

Another contributor to girls’ lack of interest in STEM subjects can sometimes be related to the attitudes of their teachers. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that when female teachers express their own anxieties about math, that often passes on to female students, leading them to be less confident about their performance in math. This anxiety has proven to negatively impact students’ academic performance.

This passing on of math anxiety creates a feedback loop. As they influence their female students to also be less confident in math, this in turn again contributes to the gender imbalance in STEM. It can be hypothesized that the gender gap is not a reflection of a lack of ability, but a lack of encouragement.

The gender gap in STEM also intersects with issues of race and class. Research has also shown that Black girls are especially more likely to view themselves as outsiders in math. Some teachers even harbor biases that confirm this view, further discouraging these students. Low-income students and Black and Latino females are also shown to be less likely to take advanced STEM courses and go into STEM-related fields.

Research has also shown that household income is a determinant in how students perform in STEM subjects. Thus, the playing field is already uneven between genders. There also exists even more disparities for girls of color and those of lower socioeconomic statuses. Organizations like Black Girls Code, Latina Girls Code, and schools like the Bay Area’s Promise Academy that offer programs in STEM for lower-income students are rising to the occasion in addressing these gaps in achievement.

Ultimately, the current imbalance in technology is one that is deep-rooted and nuanced. A comprehensive solution means promoting equality in education for all demographics from a young age. Make sure to check out our next post on potential solutions!

Phoebe, Lu