STEM Fields: Where Are the Women?

March is Women's History Month and my 13-year-old daughter doesn't care. She cares about Big Time Rush performing in August, about the free time in study hall yesterday in which something "epic" happened, and the dress she'll wear to her upcoming field trip. A month ago, she was so excited, and so stressed, about choosing her classes for her upcoming freshman year in high school. To help students select their courses, the school district conducts aptitude and interest assessments. The results are incredibly presented as a world of career options tailored just for her. After years of wanting to be a veterinarian when she grows up, my daughter is now exploring a career as a chemist.

Because it's March, and because of the unbelievable "war on women," I should use this platform to write about the great strides women have made in the past 50 years, because there have been many. However, as my little girl becomes a young woman, Women's History Month just got personal. My thoughts turn instead to an issue that has not changed much in recent history -- the underrepresentation of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM fields. Women earn only 17 to 18 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering and computer science, and only 11 percent of executives at Fortune 500 tech companies are women. In fact, women now make up over half the workforce, but hold only 25 percent of IT jobs.

So where does this disparity begin? From a young age, girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM fields because of negative messaging and gender stereotyping. Girls not only feel disconnected from technology, math and science, but they also view these subjects as isolating and unpopular. ABC News reported that during the back-to-school shopping season, JC Penney produced a t-shirt for girls aged 7-16 that read, "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me," and Forever 21 produced a graphic tee that read, "Allergic to algebra." When only 19 percent of AP Computer Science test-takers are female, it is clear that messaging indicating the undesirability of STEM subjects is having a significant effect.

Women's limited representation in STEM fields puts them at a significant disadvantage for the future job market. Workers with associate's degrees in STEM fields out-earn 63 percent of those who hold bachelor's degrees in other fields. As the demand for technical skills in STEM and other fields increases, the next generation of women must be prepared to meet that demand--which means we must change the message we are sending to young girls about STEM fields.

We need to encourage girls' interest in math and science, work to break down the negative stereotypes, and match girls up with mentors. At the YWCA, we offer a youth empowerment program called TechGYRLS, which aims to bridge the gender gap and teach girls STEM subjects using a girl-friendly learning style. The University of Illinois also has a pre-college outreach program geared toward girls grades K-12 called Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). One way to support efforts to increase the number of women in STEM fields is to invest in programs like these.

Right now my daughter's friends are just like her -- fun, social and smart. So it's safe for her to choose a dream like being a chemist. I worry about when she's 17. Will the pressures of high school push her to choose something more traditional and supposedly girl-appropriate? During this most special month to the YWCA, I hope you will join me in pledging your support for girls and women in STEM-related jobs. I encourage you to become a mentor and to champion STEM subjects as exciting areas for girls to pursue. March isn't just about celebrating and honoring the great women of history, it's also about preparing girls and young women to make history tomorrow.