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Closing the STEM Gender Gap: Why Is It Important and What Can You Do to Help?

Posted: 11/10/2013 11:16 am

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

If you asked my 9-year-old niece what she wants to be when she grows up, she would quickly answer that she wants to be a writer or teacher. If you asked my 7-year-old nephew what he wants to be when he grows up, he would proudly tell you that he wants to be a scientist or an engineer. These answers make sense considering that my niece loves reading books and taking care of her American Girl doll while my nephew enjoys looking up science experiments and making Coke bottles explode with Mentos.

What's so wrong about this story? After all, we need teachers and writers as much as we need scientists and engineers. Besides, what a kid wants to be when he or she is in elementary school isn't necessarily indicative of their future career choices... right?

Fast-forward eight years. My junior year of high school, I took both IB Biology and IB Physics. The number of girls in my IB Biology class was about the same as the number of boys in the class. On the other hand, the number of girls in my IB Physics class was significantly smaller than the number of boys in the class. Similarly, in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, the world's top science and engineering competition for high school students, women made up 54 percent of the finalists in the biochemistry category but only 17 percent of the finalists in the computer science category.

Fast-forward eight more years. In 2010, women received on average about 14 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees at major research universities, and that number has not changed much since then. The trend that started in elementary school that encourages girls to go into the humanities and boys to go into engineering and mathematics has prevailed throughout high school, college, and well into the workplace. The stereotypes we ingrain into our children at as early an age as four or five don't just magically disappear when they get older. Instead, those stereotypes strengthen as children grow older and continue to explore the society that continually reinforces these stereotypes.

Why is it so important that we encourage more women to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? Many of my friends, classmates, and even adult teachers and neighbors (both male and female) whom I have spoken to about this issue don't seem to understand what the big deal is. So what if women hold less than 20% of computer science or engineering degrees? So what if fewer and fewer female students are enrolling in physics and technology classes as the years go by? We've come a long way since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they tell me. Maybe it's time to give it a rest.

Here's why it's so important to encourage more women to go into STEM fields. In a country in which the average women still earns 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns, and in a country in which the majority of single parents are single mothers, getting more women into STEM could both reduce the gender wage gap and ensure that single mothers don't have to struggle to put food on the table. Not only are there currently more jobs in STEM than in any other industry, but most of these high-tech jobs are high-paying, as well. According to the National Council for Women and Information Technology, there will be around 1.4 million computer specialist job openings expected in the U.S. by 2020. Women have the capability to hold 50 percent of those jobs. Yet, in order to get to the point where women earn fifty percent of STEM degrees and hold fifty percent of STEM jobs, we need to start at the very beginning.

By the very beginning, I mean pre-K, when kids are just beginning to learn basic math and science skills and most likely have not yet been exposed to the stereotypes regarding men and women in STEM. By the time women reach college, or even high school, it may be too late to change their minds about going into STEM. After all, choosing a major or a career is a lifelong process of determining what we enjoy doing. And much of what we enjoy doing is determined early on by outside forces such as parents, teachers, and society's general expectations.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, recently mentioned that of the 35 kids in a Stanford technology camp for young children, only five were girls. Of those five girls, Sandberg herself had enrolled two of them (her niece and her niece's friend). What does this say about the parents of the girls who could have been in that camp? If a girl's parents don't believe in their daughter's ability to succeed in engineering and technology, how can we expect that girl to grow up and believe in it herself? In order to get more women into STEM, we need to start by eliminating our subconscious attempts to gear our young boys towards STEM and keep our young girls in the dark.

Now, what about those of us who don't have children yet? Can we do anything to help the gender gap in STEM? Yes, yes we can. According to Jocelyn Goldfein, the director of engineering at Facebook, the reason there aren't more women computer scientists is "because there aren't more women computer scientists." If girls see that most of their female mentors and older female friends aren't going into STEM, they are less likely to go into those fields themselves. Part of the reason behind this phenomenon is the stereotype threat, which states that if we are aware of a stereotype, we are more likely to act in accordance with it. In order to help our young girls to not be afraid of STEM fields such as engineering and computer science, older girls and young women need to show that we are not afraid of these fields ourselves.

Individually, we can't change the fact girls make up a very small percentage of the programmers, engineers, and scientists shown on television and in movies, nor can we change the way the media portrays girl "geeks." What we can do, however, is make a difference in the lives of the young girls we know personally. And one day, the young girls we help will grow up to cure diseases, write computer programs, discover the next technological advances, and ultimately change the world.

 
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