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What is Contributing to the Lack of STEM Self Confidence In Girls?

07/01/2013 11:02 am ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

This Spring Semester at the California State University, Long Beach I taught seventy-six engineering students in two course sections. What saddened and shocked me the most was the number of female students in these two sections--eleven. That accounted for less than fifteen percent of the entire two classes combined.

It is no secret that the field of engineering and computer science is dominated by men, but the many excuses that include, "Women are just not that good in math," or "Women are naturally better in the liberal arts than in math," make no sense since young girls through the end of elementary school perform on par with young boys in math. However, after elementary school they begin to shy away from math and the hard sciences. This got me thinking. What is going on in society that contributes to these issues? What is contributing to the lack of self-confidence in girls that they begin to believe math and science are too difficult?

In the U.S. the spotlight on boys over girls still exists in non-apparent ways. As an instructor, I've witnessed my male students act more comfortable participating and speaking out than my female students, even though later on I learned through private conversations that the female students knew the correct answers. I've also been told by a female engineering student that the only reason she was able to keep up with the boys in the hard science courses was because when the boys were studying, she was studying; but when the boys were playing video games, she was still studying.

The glaring problem is that some time after elementary school the achievement divide in math and science between boys and girls starts increasing dramatically. Thus, when girls reach college, the few who do declare a math or hard science major become part of an incredibly small group of female STEM students who face the stereotype that they are not as strong academically as male STEM students. The situation becomes worse when there is little or no active outreach on the school's part.

But there is hope. Dr. Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College in Greater Los Angeles, has shown how mentoring and encouraging young women to pursue the study of hard sciences and engineering can translate into young women actually pursuing those degrees. At Harvey Mudd College forty percent of Computer Science majors are women. That is an astounding number that contradicts, "Women are just not that good in math." Mentoring programs for women are important so the already small group of female STEM students do not become invisible faces who drop out. Schools must be kept accountable in providing equal attention to all students.

As written in the book, the Art of War for Women, "Just because women are sensitive and empathetic, it does not mean they do not enjoy the thrill of competition." Women can fight against the STEM statistics by not discounting their abilities, speaking up, and finding an outlet that can cultivate their confidence. So, I end with this--don't just lean in. Fight on! To all the women and girls: you can win this battle.