The Future is STEM: Why We Need to Engage Girls Early

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in STEM will have higher than average projected growth in the next ten years but only a small fraction of girls and women are likely to pursue degrees in STEM.

Despite many initiatives and efforts, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields.

In Cracking the Code, a report on STEM education for girls and women put forth by UNESCO, Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General states: “Only 17 women have won a Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, or medicine since Marie Curie in 1903, compared to 572 men. Today, only 28% of all of the world’s researchers are women. Such huge disparities, such deep inequality, do not happen by chance.”

The reasons behind why girls and women are underrepresented in STEM fields are complex (see Dr. Yvonne Skipper’s recent KDP blog post).

Microsoft recently funded a research project that indicated that a variety of reasons exist why.  For instance, it was found that girls tend to lose interest in STEM subjects around middle school (Tan, E., Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., & O’Neill, T., 2013). Identity and stereotypes related to membership in STEM fields can have a dampening effect on motivation to pursue STEM for many girls (Shapiro, J. R., & Williams, A. M., 2012). Confidence also plays a big role in motivation and orientation towards STEM fields (Heaverlo, C. (2011). STEM development: A study of 6th-12th grade girls’ interest and confidence in mathematics and science.)

Gladly, research into this critical issue has also demonstrated some proven strategies that work:

  • Teacher and parent influences and role modeling help: studies show encouragement from parents and teachers can have a profound effect on STEM engagement among girls and increases motivation for entering into the field (Rabenberg, T. A., 2013).
  • After-school programs and science clubs: Research also indicates that schools and communities need to invest in and provide space and opportunity for girls to engage in STEM.  (Tyler-Wood, T., Ellison, A., Lim, O., & Periathiruvadi, S., 2012 and Vingilis-Jaremko, L., 2010)
  • Inquiry-based STEM curriculum plays a role: Transforming STEM curriculum from learning and memorizing to doing has, time and time again, shown to elicit interest from all students in STEM: (Burns, H.D. & Staus, N, 2016)

Women make up 49.6% of the world population.

It’s crucial that, as STEM careers and industries grow, women continue to be a strong part of the progression.

The best practices for involving women comes early in their lives through schools, teachers, parents, and communities.

Dr. Mubina Schroeder

Dr. Mubina Schroeder is an Associate Professor at Molloy College, where she co-directs the Cognition and Learning Lab.  She is a Kappa Delta Pi United Nations Professional Representative and serves on the Board of Directors for the United Nations NGO/DPI.


Burns, H. D., Lesseig, K., & Staus, N. (2016, October). Girls’ interest in STEM. In 2016 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.

Tyler-Wood, T., Ellison, A., Lim, O., & Periathiruvadi, S. (2012). Bringing up girls in science (BUGS): The effectiveness of an afterschool environmental science program for increasing female students’ interest in science careers. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21(1), 46-55.

Vingilis-Jaremko, L. (2010). How Science Clubs Can Support Girls’ Interest in Science. LEARNing Landscapes, 3(2), 155-160.

Rabenberg, T. A. (2013). Middle school girls’ STEM education: Using teacher influences, parent encouragement, peer influences, and self efficacy to predict confidence and interest in math and science

Tan, E., Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., & O’Neill, T. (2013). Desiring a career in STEM‐related fields: How middle school girls articulate and negotiate identities‐in‐practice in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(10), 1143-1179.

Shapiro, J. R., & Williams, A. M. (2012). The role of stereotype threats in undermining girls’ and women’s performance and interest in STEM fields. Sex Roles, 66(3-4), 175-183.

Rabenberg, T. A. (2013). Middle school girls’ STEM education: Using teacher influences, parent encouragement, peer influences, and self efficacy to predict confidence and interest in math and science (Doctoral dissertation, Drake University).

Steinke, J. (2017). Adolescent girls’ STEM identity formation and media images of STEM professionals: Considering the influence of contextual cues. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 716.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Dr. Yvonne Skipper

Today’s blogger is Yvonne Skipper, who co-authored with Eloise de Carvalho to write “’I Have Seen the Opportunities That Science Brings’: Encouraging Girls to Persist in Science,” which appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.

This time-honored question, which children across the globe are asked with regularity, can lead to surprising responses.

Beyond the whimsical “princess” and “unicorn” to the heart-warming “happy,” children often have strong ideas even before they reach school.

However, as children get older and learn more about the world, these ideas can change.

For example, we cannot all become a real princess like Megan Markle! Sometimes these views change, not because of how children see the world, but because of how the world sees them. Society may openly or subtly suggest that certain jobs are for men and others for women.

This view can impact the subjects and careers children choose, as illustrated in this brief video.

There is currently a huge demand for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates in the workforce. Those with a STEM background are valued not just in the science-based jobs, but also in other roles where the ability to think critically, analyze data, and evaluate evidence is prized.

However, often children are not interested in STEM subjects, seeing them as “too hard” or “boring,” and they are even less interested in scientific careers. When you look at those who do continue in science, typically you find more boys in STEM subjects, such as math and physics, and in pursuit of careers such as engineering. This difference is not seen because girls lack talent in these subjects. In fact, girls often perform better than boys, receiving higher proportions of the top grades. So why are these talented girls less likely to continue in STEM than boys?

It has been suggested that we choose our subjects and our careers based on whether we think we can succeed and our values.

Boys are more likely than girls to believe they can succeed in STEM, even though they are overall less likely to get the highest grades. Their belief might come from seeing so many famous male scientists, both in academia and in fiction. This can lead boys and girls to believe that men are more likely to succeed and also more likely to “belong” in science. Even the television show Big Bang Theory focuses more on male scientists; female scientists Amy and Bernadette do not appear until later seasons and are working in the more “female” fields of medicine and neurobiology. It is important that the media fully represent female scientists in their factual and fiction programming.

We also choose subjects and careers that we think we will enjoy and that we see as useful in our lives or in our communities.

Many girls choose careers where they can help others, such as teaching, midwifery, and social work. Girls often do not perceive STEM careers as “helpful.” This is interesting because, for example, designing a new wheelchair to manage rough terrain, creating inclusive educational technologies, and researching cures for diseases could have a positive impact and help people worldwide. Yet often girls do not make the connection between STEM subjects and the impact of associated careers, and may prefer a more interpersonal approach to helping.

Promoting how “helpful” science can be could potentially lead girls to develop an understanding about how science improves society.

In our Forum article, Eloise and I are not saying that girls should be pushed into science careers, but instead that women should not leave a subject or career path for the “wrong” reason, such as believing that they are less likely to succeed than others or that they will not belong. Instead it is important that we feel able to choose our subjects and career paths in line with our interests and goals for ourselves and our communities.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through June 30, 2019.