According to the National Science Board’s recent Science and Engineering Indicators report only 29% of the science and engineering workforce is comprised of women. And with the onus resting on the shoulders of higher education leaders to provide both the graduates who will fill the gaps in the workforce and the ROI for students, moral and economic challenges create barriers to addressing gender equality in the STEM workforce
Pressures for women don’t start in college, but early on — and finding a solution to workforce demands requires leaders across the spectrum to collaborate in order to patch a leaky pipeline.
Early education contributes to the “Gender Gap”
Experts caution that a lack of encouragement and confidence building from both parents and early instructors can result in girls devaluing their abilities, a symptom that can conflate throughout college and beyond.
Authors of a Joan Ganz Cooney Center report on early STEM education, “STEM starts early,” found gender-based perceptions around girls’ abilities can start affecting them as early as their toddler years. A longitudinal study of more than 12,000 students showed that while there isn’t a math gender gap in kindergarten, one forms and grows by the end of third grade among some of the top performing students — and much of it is attributable to the effects of teacher bias.
“What we were seeing is even if you have a boy and a girl who are equally engaged with the material, equally well engaged in class […] and that boy and girl has the same test score, it turns out that the teacher often says the boy has a higher math ability than the girl,” said Joseph Cimpian, one of the report’s authors. “The punchline is teachers underrating the ability of girls actually leads to the gender gap growing — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The authors indicate that girls’ interest in STEM peaks in middle school but can disappear in high school — often due to societal pressures. This particularly manifests in subjects like calculus, which are key to getting into STEM careers.
More help from higher education and industry to build the pipeline
To tackle this higher education and tech industry leaders can begin to publicize more female role models and offer hands-on opportunities in science to younger girls through K-12 partnerships.
For example, the Women in Engineering program at the University of Maryland, College Park builds out the pathway for women by reaching out to girls in 4th through 12th grade with STEM programs offered throughout the summer and academic year. Initially, the program only targeted 11th and 12th graders, but the directors realized that by that it time, it was too late to attract and sustain interest.
By focusing on a greater segment of their desired future enrollees, the school is fostering a more viable talent pool from which to recruit. By tapping into girls’ curiosity while young and then building the confidence in their abilities into high school, these institutions are able to engage more women at a key transitional point at which they decide whether to go into a STEM major upon entering college.