There’s a lot of talk regarding the gap between women in STEM fields and men in STEM fields. There are a lot of ideas about why this gap exists and what the numbers really are and what they mean. The fact is that if the planet is going to have a successful future, we need a lot of children to grow up to be science, technology, engineering, and math experts.
My nonprofit, Science from Scientists, has been bringing visiting scientists into classrooms to teach boys and girls since 2002, and I’ve been sharing my love of science with others for most of my life. It’s probably not surprising that I have some thoughts on how educators and parents can help nurture kids’ interest in STEM. Throughout my education and career, I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing teachers and role models. Some of my greatest mentors have been women. Some of my greatest mentors have been men. For me, connecting over a shared love of discovery was more important than anything else. When we talk about getting more girls and women involved in STEM, we’re not just talking about inclusion for the sake of inclusion—we want to make sure we’re not somehow writing off half of the population.
Social Pressures and the Confidence Gap
Sweeping generalizations do not make good science. However, I think we can safely say that women and men are different and tend to face different challenges. Acknowledging common differences may be helpful for bringing more people into STEM. In my observation, men and boys do not seem to be as self-critical as women and girls. Men may even overestimate their successes and abilities more often than women do. Men tend to be more eager to share their ideas and have fewer qualms about reinventing things—which is possibly why there are more male entrepreneurs. In general, men just seem to have more confidence, and that confidence is an asset.
It’s also important to recognize that there may be fewer women in the sciences partially due to the simple fact that everything takes time. Earning an advanced degree is time-consuming, and so is having a family. Women who choose to do both may stay out of the workforce for a while at some point, and it can be difficult to return. Facing social or family pressure about these very personal choices can be stressful. That’s just one reason that girls must grow up knowing that their decisions deserve respect.
Around fourth or fifth grade, a lot of girls seem to get the idea that they are not cool if they are smart, and that boys don’t like smart girls. I hope it will change, but it does seem to be a pervasive and persistent idea. I also believe that women are just generally held to higher standards from youth onward, which may feed self-doubt. It would be nice if these sex-based biases and expectations would go away, but because they seem to persist, let’s combat them everywhere we teach STEM
A good first lesson for all students might be that if you’re afraid of being smarter than your friends, you may need different friends. It’s OK to be smart! It’s also OK to be yourself, to be a leader, and to do things for your own reasons. I think we can model these ideas in the classrooms. For those in middle school, the good news is that life after college isn’t middle school. Being smart is an asset when you’re older and people appreciate it differently. Don’t sabotage yourself and your future as a child looking to be “popular.”
Furthermore, all kids need to know that they have the right to not be good at something. When expectations are unrealistic, failure can damage self-confidence, which is why we need to start showing children that failure is a part of most processes; it is not the ending. Success comes from trying again and again. Rather than making students feel bad about not understanding right away, help them celebrate their progress. Positive feedback can boost them over the tough spots.
Providing Learning Opportunities
Math and science can be intimidating topics, but there is also a huge variety of math and science to try out. A child may think that they are bad at these subjects because they struggle in a certain area of math or science, but there are a lot of areas in which they may excel. Allow students to find their niche. Encourage all kinds of science and build upon kids’ interests, sneak science into their hobbies, or just go on a field trip. Experiences outside of home or school can leave lifelong impressions for the price of a day at the zoo, natural history museum, or science museum. Even hiking and looking at animal tracks or rock formations is a great way to get children interested in different areas of science—for free.
As a kid who loved science, competition was another thing that really kept me going. I loved to compete and winning propelled me. Think about signing your students up for a science competition. Then, you can watch their confidence blossom. Even if they don’t win, putting in all that work and seeing what they can create is great for building confidence.
Bring science and life skills together by giving children opportunities to problem solve and allowing them to practice decision-making skills. Give them opportunities to stand up for their ideas by presenting their research or sharing thought processes, experiments, and observations. Use opportunities to teach respectful disagreement and show students that we don’t need to deride each other and call names, scoff at, or generally be a jerk to each other when we disagree. Being able to argue both sides of an argument is actually useful as it means you have the empathy to understand the other side.
Inform students that STEM is not all computers or test tubes and lab coats. There are so many fields of STEM, and within those fields there are leadership positions, academic positions, and research positions—and never forget about the entrepreneur track! Let kids know what’s out there. The nearly limitless possibilities may spark new interests.
What does an engineer look like? How about a neuroscientist? An astrophysicist?
In addition to the fields that are available, show students the professionals who work in those fields, what they do on a daily basis, and what they have accomplished. An array of examples is powerful, and I do think that girls, in particular, need to see women working in the sciences. There are so many kinds of scientists that it shouldn’t be hard to find STEM experts who resonate with diverse boys and girls. Talk about these experts, ask them to visit your classroom, watch videos about them, or attend events where you can see scientists in action. Invite scientists to tell their stories and let the kids see what they have in common. People who work in STEM have struggled with personal and professional challenges and even learning disabilities. Each of these women and men think, behave, dress, work, and live in different ways and come from all backgrounds and cultures. Some of them have even been Miss America contestants :). Students may even be disappointed to learn that some scientists don’t consider themselves nerds. Celebrating differences can help to combat all sorts of biases and assumptions.
Men and Women Working Together in STEM
No matter how you interpret the numbers of men and women in STEM, we can all agree that good ideas come from different places and everyone should feel welcome in the sciences. Science from Scientists doesn’t separate boys and girls, and there’s a very good reason for that: these students are going to grow up and join the workforce. A productive workplace is one where people cooperate. It’s kind of like how we at Ixcela explain gut health: Diversity in the gut microbiome is good. If you eat only one type of food or do one type of exercise, your gut will only make certain types of metabolites and your health may suffer. Likewise, diversity in science fields is good and diversity in the workplace is good. Diversity of thought and experience within STEM furthers our scientific knowledge, improves our innovations, and equips us for the future.
The future, as I’ve said before, is STEM! Let’s nurture not only girls’ and boys’ STEM skills, but also their communication and cooperation skills. I think the ultimate goal isn’t just to get more women working in STEM; it’s to have plenty of men and women successfully working together to face our challenges and build upon our successes.
Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.