Recent research conducted by the Girl Scouts of the USA shows that 74% of teenage girls are interested in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math). But nearly as many girls surveyed in the report say that STEM careers are not their first choice and that they do not know enough about the fields of study.
This budding interest seems to dwindle during adolescence. Only about one in five female students in universities choose to major in engineering, physics, and computer science. Even more, only about one in four women hold positions in STEM careers. More needs to be done to foster girls’ interest in STEM subjects during these formative years before it is lost.
Misconceptions and Mixed Messages
Almost everyone has heard of the cliché “nerdy girl.” She is frumpy. None of the boys want to ask her out. She likes math and science. Despite the fact that feminism has been changing rapidly and in many ways young girls are encouraged to pursue STEM careers more than ever, the disconnect between trends in the real world and popular culture are stark.
Large corporations that were almost exclusively male only two short decades ago have started hiring women in executive positions. Almost every issue of the Engineering News Record shows women who are actively involved in the engineering and construction careers. Even more, the industry magazine portrays women who are commonly promoted to executive positions. However, popular media marketed to teens and younger adolescents does not focus on these women. Instead, it largely feeds into the idea that math is for nerds. The main message is that girls who like math will grow up to be some sort of pariah. The more realistic images of polished, successful women who earn high salaries in STEM careers are lost in the shuffle.
Time for a Reality Check
Actresses can pretend to be anything, and a public STEM endorsement by a current teen music icon might fall short. This female image is simply not considered “marketable” by popular media. However, real women who are actively involved in STEM careers can offer a healthy dose of reality to young girls. Female pioneers can show more than a rewarding STEM career is possible. These successful women can serve as inspiration for boys and successful men as well.
For example, the women associated with the ARCS Foundation are dedicated to the advancement of STEM in the United States and are impressive by any measure, regardless of gender. Practically nothing is as inspiring as meeting the first female CFO for IBM or the female ARCS member that was actively involved in creating the stretch of Interstate 70 that crosses the mountains between Colorado and Utah. The amount of personal wealth acquired from said endeavors taken on by smart women can only add to the inspiration for young girls who want to pursue STEM careers.
Being a Smart and Capable Young Woman
Many of the girls surveyed in the Girls Scouts study reported liking the creative, hands-on nature of STEM subjects. But when is the last time you saw a toy advertised or a persona of a woman who is great at organic chemistry or structural engineering who is not the token “nerd” in a movie or on TV? The character Renee Witherspoon plays in Legally Blonde, whether you agree with the stereotypical portrayal or not, challenges the notion of style and intelligence as being mutually exclusive. The more often girls see images of smart, successful women stepping outside of traditional female roles, the more motivated they will be to pursue their genuine interests, including STEM majors in college.
Education Is the Answer
As a society, we need to be doing more to hold up the 25% of women who currently are involved in STEM careers as realistic examples of successful women rather than the latest Hollywood celebrity. Show girls successful women in STEM careers. Talk about it often. Doing this routinely at home, in school, and in our communities will help bring out the inclination many girls already have toward STEM careers that is being systematically squashed by mainstream media and gender stereotypes. A high-quality STEM-focused education, like the one offered by Concept Schools, is a major step in the right direction.