Opinion: Let's get more girls into STEM — for them and for us all

Participants of the Tech Age Girls program in Myanmar, which equips young women to use technology as a tool for leadership and community development. Photo by: Beyond Access / CC BY-SA

As the world struggles to address climate change, global health crises, and surging concerns around artificial intelligence and privacy, it feels particularly important to assess where we are in terms of girls’ and women’s participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. The analysis is that, while representation is improving over time, those who face disproportionate risk from these global threats are still being sidelined from opportunities to solve them.

For example, girls and women are more likely to experience displacement, death, or assault during climate and other emergencies and to be drawn out of school or into early marriages to help families manage reduced resources during times of economic anxiety caused by instability.

Technologies and innovations that could improve these situations are designed predominately by men, however, given that only 30% of female students in higher education globally choose STEM-related fields, and of those, only 5% choose natural science, mathematics, and statistics, while 8% select engineering, manufacturing, and construction. Only 3% choose information and communications technology.

The result is less diverse thinking in global problem-solving. This also means fewer women and girls gaining access to potentially high-satisfaction, prosperous careers. STEM careers bring prestige and higher pay, which translate into more women serving as role models to the children in their households and earning salaries that help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

This is particularly true in countries where women’s economic power is constrained; women in nations with less gender equality take up STEM careers at higher rates as a means of securing financial freedom.

Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to get girls and women into STEM careers. The challenge is that doing so takes hard work across a wide spectrum of inputs, including changing gender norms and mindsets, exposing girls to relevant role models, and increasing basic education for all.

Changing gender norms and mindsets

Studies have shown that girls and boys start out with no discernible difference in ability when it comes to learning math. And when girls do persist in science fields, they excel academically. However, instead of equal uptake of science and math among girls and boys, girls are more likely to “self-select” out of these subjects by adolescence, even when they perform well in them. It’s deceptive to paint this as a wholly self-driven choice; that masks the years that girls spend in classrooms, at home, and as members of society hearing messages that reduce and negate their interest in the sciences.

Additionally, across countries and regions, girls are celebrated for being studious, calm, and better behaved, and they are thus highly encouraged by parents and teachers to pursue reading — which requires sitting still and paying sustained attention.

Boys, on the other hand, are thought of as naturally rambunctious and in need of more playtime. This creates a disparity whereby girls receive more encouragement to read in early childhood and thus present higher skills in reading. Meanwhile, boys are channeled toward play, which we know is a meaningful outlet for experimentation and exploration — the foundations of science.

We need to support families and educators to encourage girls’ curiosity at the same rates as they do boys’ and provide equal opportunities for play, experimentation, and exploration.

Exposing girls to relevant role models

Family members and teachers play an outsized role in how girls — and boys — perceive their capacity in the sciences. The messages they send are reinforced at home and at school, making it essential that parents and caregivers demonstrate a belief in gender equality when it comes to math and science ability.

Teachers can help children and their parents in this quest. Teach For Afghanistan, one of Teach For All’s partners, supports its primarily female teaching force to serve as role models for girls and boys. These teachers, coming from diverse academic and professional backgrounds, demonstrate the possibilities for women in various career paths — many of which their female students might not have known were available to them.

They also help parents make the connection between their desire to see their daughters taught by female teachers or treated by female doctors and the need to encourage their daughters to undertake studies that enable them to pursue those professions themselves.

This example underscores the need for girls to be exposed to relevant, representative role models at various stages of their careers in science and other STEM fields. These role models need to speak openly about every step of the path they took, including their studies, their entry-level work experiences, where they failed, and what they learned from their challenges and successes. They should also provide accurate information about salary and growth opportunities in their fields to give girls a well-rounded understanding of their options. Additionally, they should reflect their audience. Girls should be able to see women who look like them or who came from similar backgrounds succeeding in STEM careers.

Increasing basic education for all

An education that sets high expectations and provides access to quality materials and resources prepares children for life and career opportunities. Incidentally, this is also what it takes to prepare girls for studying and persisting in STEM subjects. STEM study raises overall academic performance and achievement, and it serves children by offering them chances to grapple with difficult and interesting work. Meanwhile, schools that are poorly funded and under-resourced fail to prepare most children for STEM careers, regardless of gender. As such, ensuring basic equality of access to a rigorous educational experience is a foundational step that we cannot avoid in the quest to get more girls into STEM fields.

A rapidly changing and uncertain future awaits us all. Solving the weightiest challenges we face requires the ingenuity and participation of girls and women, and we must gain traction faster on ensuring that they have equal access to science careers that inform our policies, create our new technologies, and serve our communities. We know what to do; we just need the sustained will to do it.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Samantha Williams

    Samantha Williams is the global director of girls' education at Teach For All.