We bemoan the lack of women in senior STEM roles and we struggle to get girls interested in math and science early in their school lives. Here is a story to illustrate what my husband and I did to keep our daughter, Tara Maya, who is finishing medical school this year and who plans to be a surgeon, on track to excel in math and science during her middle school years. I am convinced that those are the years we must pay attention to if we want to solve the issue of gender imbalance in STEM.
Jobs in STEM are expected to increase to more than 9 million by 2022, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, with computing positions growing at twice the national average. Women in STEM earn 33 percent more than women in other fields.
Our experience with Tara tells us that girls are often turned off by math and science in Middle School and simply never catch up. When Tara was in 5th grade at her K-8 school in Princeton, she was in the top math group. All of a sudden she began to express ambivalence about her ability to keep up with the pace of her math class. After every test she would complain about not being able to make A's. Every day she would complain about homework getting increasingly difficult.
My husband and I are both strong in math - he has a business undergraduate degree with a minor in statistics and I studied commerce, economics and math in college. I also come from a family of accountants and mathematicians. So it was inconceivable that she lacked the genetics to do well.
Feeling certain that there was more to it than met the eye, we dug deeper. Here is what we found: there were only 2 or 3 girls in the top math group and none of them were the "cool" girls. Somehow our sweet little girl had got it into her head that being good at math was "uncool" and that boys wouldn't like her! At that stage, being liked by boys seemed like a huge driver to one's social status in school!
My husband and I took a three-pronged approach to helping contend with this challenge;
1. We used family history and our own personal success in math as a way to reinforce her genetic capability to do well in math.
2. We assured her that getting B's or even C's in the top math group was OK (we knew she would never be satisfied with it herself and would strive to do better in the long run)
3. We told her there was no way we would sign the permission slip for her to drop down to a lower level.
We also spoke to her school counselor, math teacher and some of her girlfriend's parents, among others, to reinforce that this was an issue that demanded scrutiny and attention. We suggested that they have girls-only math classes as a way to build confidence and remove stigma and competitiveness with the boys.
Fast forward; Tara did just fine in middle school, went to a very competitive high school and college and then medical school--we were off the hook so easily! And she dreams of impacting the world around her in ways small and big.
Over the years, according to an article in the current issue of Working Mother, women have made significant strides in business, law and even the life sciences sector of STEM. We are nearly half of medical school enrollees. But in engineering and computer science--fields with the most lucrative and fastest growing number of jobs--women fall to the bottom. In fact, the number of women in computing has fallen from its peak of 35 percent in 1990 to 26 percent.
Our message to parents of girls: keep close watch on them in middle school and DON'T let them give up easily. Your ability to be observant and demanding, supportive and encouraging will keep our girls in STEM.