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Where are the girls?

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I've been thinking and reading a lot about the persistent lack of gender diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Put another way, where are the girls and women?? We know this a big issue just by looking at the data, as quantified by our friends at Girls Who Code:

• In middle school, 74% of girls express interest in STEM, but when choosing a college major, just 0.4% of high school girls select computer science.
• Despite the fact that 55% of overall AP test takers are girls, only 17% of AP Computer Science test takers are high school girls.
• Women today represent 18% of all computer science graduates. In 1984, they represented 37%. (I'm guessing this is in part due to a lot fewer overall CS majors in 1984, but the point holds)
• While 57% of bachelor's degrees are earned by women, just 12% of computer science degrees are awarded to women.
• Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but hold just 25% of the jobs in technical or computing fields.
• The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. Yet American universities are expected produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29% of these jobs.

It's this last statistic that really caught my eye. If the estimate is correct, there will be a shortfall of nearly 1 million computer specialists in just a few years, while at the same time over half of our population -- the female half -- will not be prepared or competing for those jobs. So what's going on here, and what can we do about it? The causes of gender bias in all its forms are complex and long standing. Frankly, I'll leave that broad discussion to others, and there has been a lot written about it. It's the effects and possible solutions I want to focus on here.

My concern goes beyond unfilled jobs. From my point of view, the most disturbing outcome is the lack of perspective in scientific fields where women are not represented. Mika Doyle, in "The Truth About Why Little Girls Need STEM Toys" captured this best by noting,

"Most STEM innovations are developed by a workforce dominated by white males, meaning those innovations are developed with that perspective and experience in mind. Diversity, when nurtured appropriately, leads to better innovations that are more meaningful to the general population. According to Marina Lee, founder and CEO of the Women in Tech Network, women contribute to diversity, and diversity helps a company's bottom line. When you remove that population from the workforce, Lee says, you remove a crucial pool of talent."

I think that's generally right: a diversity of viewpoints and experiences will lead to richer outcomes for all concerned. And again, while the causes for this lack of diversity are many, let's examine some suggested solutions. In 2015 the American Association of University Women (AAUW) took a close look at this issue and produced a comprehensive report . In it they touch on suggested solutions that I think make a lot of sense, and in fact are supported by our work here at Arizona Science Center. The solutions break into four categories:

1. Teach girls that STEM subjects are learned, not innate.

I think that too often there is a belief that somehow boys are just somehow more naturally inclined towards STEM fields, that they have an innate predisposition to them. This is a bias that likely comes in early, and reinforced in many subtle ways. We can take the initiative here and let our girls know that these are skills that are learned, not inherited.

2. Provide girls with opportunities to tinker, take things apart, and put them back together.

Why is it that boys are encouraged to play with tinker toys and erector sets, and girls with dolls? The good news is that this is changing, and in a big way. My favorite example is the great work being done by the team at Goldieblox, which has developed a line of engineering based toys just for girls. I love what they have done!

3. Introduce girls to STEM subjects outside of the school setting.

This is exactly where Arizona Science Center comes in, and has a big role to play. At the Center with great programs like Teen Science Scene, and in the schools through our Pathways Outreach programs, we are connecting young people of every gender to cool and relevant STEM content. Dealing with topics like Roller Coaster Engineering, DNA Forensics, Cooking Science and Rattlesnake Dissection, how could they resist?!

4. Encourage girls to take math and science classes.

This is where you come in, parents. In addition to ensuring that your girls have access to a rich array of STEM content outside of the classroom(including play time), in school girls need to be actively encouraged to take more math and science classes, the gateways to STEM careers.

As a society, we will be richer for having more girls and women engaged in STEM fields. Truly solving for the lack of gender diversity requires efforts from every influential figure in our children's lives: parents, teachers, friends, and anyone else who plays a role in molding the future generation's views towards science education. Public facilities like Arizona Science Center are one easy way to get kids involved in science and technology, particularly our girls.

Join us, won't you?