Girls and Women in STEM: Enough About the Problems, How About Some Possible Solutions?

We all know there are talkers and there are doers. I have worked for doers. Strong women. Women who would make it clear that if you are going to bring up a problem, you better follow it up with an idea of how to address it. It became the unspoken rule. There are enough people who can say what's wrong, who will say how to fix it? And hey, if those solutions have proven to be successful in the past, that's even better.

So I started to think about an issue that has somehow become evergreen--gender inequality in STEM. There's always a tweet or two about it in my feed. Then the number ratchets up in March - Women's History Month.

There are commentaries about the lack of women in tech--and by extension STEM fields. There are profiles of those who have broken through--or as I view it, have advanced in their field. There are studies that show us the disparities--many disparities--from sheer number of employees to wages to fields of study, including a recent McKinsey study. There are declarations that we must change all of this. There are promises by companies to diversify. There are even more sets of data collected over the course of the next year.

To be clear: I do not disagree with those who speak about the disparities or the need to empower girls and women in STEM. I applaud companies that acknowledge the issue and those that resolve to address it. I think we need to be transparent and honest to move forward. But, I think we need to talk more about how to move forward. Share what's worked, even on a small scale. And just as important, what hasn't worked.

So in the spirit of not talking about a problem without addressing it, here are some ideas and examples. By no means are they perfect. Nor are they all encompassing.
What do we know? Luckily there is a great body of work to draw from. Some facts that peaked my interest include:

  • Professor Benjamin Heddy of the University of Oklahoma recently wrote, "The more I study this area, the more I'm seeing that perceived personal relevance can have a dramatic effect on academic interest and achievement in STEM."

  • In a 2011 study, Maltese & Tai demonstrated that the majority of students who pursue STEM degrees make their decision during high school.
  • A study by M.C. Bottia et al, just published, showed the statistically significant difference having more female math and science teachers has a significant effect on female students pursuing professions in STEM.
  • As "How Media Shapes Perceptions of Science and Technology for Girls and Women" said, "Pervasive negative stereotypes about women and science and math constitute some of the most important and insidious roadblocks to attracting and retaining women in STEM fields. By encouraging the creation and consumption of diverse and empowering images of women in STEM we can effectively use media to disrupt and reshape these stereotype."
  • How do we address these issues? We know early engagement is critical. We also know that we need to pre-empt those moments of doubt and questioning about continuing in STEM, helping to sustain engagement. We need to take advantage of natural moments of change in a person's life and providing opportunity in STEM. Here are just a few ideas about each. They aren't silver bullets. But they are a start.

    Early Interest

    • Making It Fun Through Prize Challenge Competition: Building on the success of "grand challenges" and X-Prize competitions, there could be a grand challenge that focuses on how to engage girls at an early age. Companies like Jewelbots and GoldieBlox have shown there is a demand and a market for engagement.
  • Require Coding: Make a certain achievement level in coding a requirement in schools. Not long ago people questioned, and some still question, why students should learn a foreign language. The reason has become evident. While it should not preclude teaching other languages (as recently seen in Florida), coding is arguably the most important tools to learn today. In schools with limited resources, there would need to be additional resources to ensure this could take place. Gamification is a particularly effective means of engagement. Build on the learnings of organizations like Code Academy and companies like Globaloria to create basic curricula for K-3, 4-8, and 9+. Globaloria, for example, helps train educators to teach off of the platform in real-time.
  • Sustained Engagement

    • Virtual Mentoring Program: The Global STEM Alliance's Virtual Mentoring Program--especially its 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures pogram--is designed to attract students 14 to 19 to STEM fields and STEM careers from around the world. It can easily be adapted for domestic purposes. The model helps to solve the question of how to reach students who may be geographically isolated or live in an area where there is little if any STEM exposure. Mentors receive 4-6 hours of virtual training and use an online mentor platform. All mentors are required to check-in bi-weekly, if not more frequently.

  • Virtual Internship: Similar to the mentoring program, promote the creation of virtual internships for students to work with STEM companies and organizations. Mobility and remote working's prominence help to support the idea.
  • Engage the Entertainment and Sports Industries to Promote STEM: While this sounds a bit mundane, data shows the importance of a girl feeling that what she is doing is "cool," or at a minimum not "un-cool." Working with the Ad Council and other groups create and execute campaigns that reinforce this message, including on college campuses. Given the data, the campaign would carry particularly weight with college audiences. According to a study by Alloy Media and Marketing, 79% of students surveyed said they "react" to advertising in student newspapers and half attended an event based on information in the paper's advertisement. Around the same percentage have passed information from an advertisement to a third party. Hollywood Health & Society, with USC and the Norman Lear Center, has a program that helps advise health, medical, and climate change storylines. Why not create or include a similar program for STEM?
  • Career Change

    • Vocational and Community College Career Change Curriculum: As we move from a service based economy to a knowledge based economy, community colleges' impact on the economy will increase. Companies and communities should incentivize vocational and community colleges to create a specific curriculum for mid-career professionals looking to change professions. Many cannot afford--in terms of time and money--to take on a full-time degree program. By creating specific certificate programs in fields in the greatest demand, this can help populate the middle of the pipeline, while also empowering a new group of mentors.

  • Lateral Entry Teaching Program: Understanding that female role-models and teachers have a significant impact on whether girls pursue STEM fields of study. A Tech Teaching Corps could focus not only on recent grads, but also those seeking a change. Example programs:
    • NSF's Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program is one example. One component funds STEM professionals who pursue alternative certification through an NSF-approved program. It provides for salary supplements for 4 years if the teacher works at a high-need school.
    • NC TEACH model, which is similar to other university-based alternative certification programs. It takes three semesters of night and weekend classes for enrollees to become certified.
    • North Carolina New Schools Project (NCNSP) STEM Teach Education Program (STEP). This program is designed for individuals who have a college degree in STEM related fields. It is a 15 month program, including a 10-month internship. All tuition, training costs and materials are paid for.
    • Those are just some ideas that have been floated, have worked, or are maybe worth taking a chance on. Hopefully as we move forward more articles that talk about the disparities also point to specific strategies to address them.