It’s a persistent and troubling problem: Why are girls so underrepresented in STEM clubs and subjects in K-12 through college, and why are there so many more men than women in STEM fields?

The call for equal representation is becoming louder, and society is striving to solve glaring gender gaps in STEM graduates and STEM fields across the country. The numbers tell an alarming story about female representation in STEM education and fields.

According to Girls Who Code, fewer than 20 percent of computer science graduates are women. Today, only 24 percent of computer scientists are women, and by 2027, just 22 percent of women will be represented in the field.

Research from the National Girls Collaborative Project shows that gender disparities become even more stark in college, when women’s participation in science and engineering varies drastically by specialization. In general, women receive far fewer degrees in computer science, engineering, physical sciences, and mathematics.

(Next page: Major motivators that keep girls engaged in STEM)

Women make up half of the nation’s total college-educated workforce, but just 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.

What motivates girls to follow STEM paths?

When it comes to keeping girls engaged in computer science, research shows that girls are more interested in a challenge when they know they are solving a problem for society or when they know their solution will help people. Appealing to that interest, experts say, can help girls stick with computer science even as it becomes more challenging.

A massive survey from Microsoft reveals that female students’ desire to seek out STEM learning opportunities is largely dependent on two motivating factors: creativity and making a difference in the world. Girls in the survey said they don’t see STEM-related career pathways as contributing to either of those drivers.

“What’s really interesting is that girls and young women said they don’t see coding or programming as creative,” says Mark Sparvell, a member of the Microsoft Education team. “They see themselves as creative, but they don’t see those STEM-related activities and career pathways as being creative, nor did they see them as meaningful and purposeful. The girls we surveyed were really clear that they wanted to change the world. They want to do things that make a difference.”

“Roughly one-quarter of students who take the AP computer science exam are female,” says Cameron Wilson, chief operating officer and president of the Code.org Advocacy Coalition. “In university computing programs, about one-quarter of total graduates are female and of the total workforce in computing occupations, women are roughly one-quarter. We know there’s a pipeline issue and we need to fix it.”

Tailoring STEM learning experiences around the factors that motivate girls can help retain them in STEM studies.

“Using project-based learning, and asking students to create applications and things relevant to themselves and their community—there’s a fair amount of research that this is the best approach to keep kids engaged, particularly females,” Wilson says.

Developers’ roles are key

Instead of pink coding kits and cutesy STEM tools, developers are moving to gender-neutral activities. In fact, much thought goes into designing STEM tools that appeal equally to boys and girls.

“Typical robotics programs tend to have predominantly boys as the audience. We wanted to change it early, while kids are still young,” says Vikas Gupta, chief executive officer of Wonder Workshop. “If we can fix that gap in elementary school, it can have a much bigger impact on what kids will go on to do later.”

Wonder Workshop’s robots, including Dot and Dash, and its accompanying curriculum and applications, are carefully designed to appeal to both boys and girls.

During focus groups for early bot designs, young female students said they did not consider one four-wheeled version of a robot to be made for them because they viewed it as a vehicle—a “boy’s” toy.

“The girls had a preconceived notion that vehicles are boys’ toys, and not girls’,” Gupta says. “These girls had already picked up on a preconceived notion, at ages five and six, that a vehicle is not a toy for them.”

With that in mind, the Wonder Workshop team set about designing bots that, as Gupta says, “don’t look like anything in this world.” A bot with one eye, three hidden wheels, and in a universally appealing color officially became Dash.

“The design worked for both boys and girls because they all brought their imagination to this robot,” he adds. “As we developed content and applications, we realized boys tended to want robots to battle, but girls didn’t. All of our content for the bots focuses on solving a problem. It’s always the robot’s mission to do some social good in the world, and by defining the problem in that construct, it appeals to both boys and girls. It’s made it a lot more accessible.”

Representation matters

Introducing STEM concepts early on and surrounding girls with images of strong female STEM professionals is another way to get more girls excited to learn.

“We’re teaching computer science in K-5 classes, and embedding computer science in classrooms means you’ll automatically get roughly a 50-50 gender breakdown, because you teach it during the normal course of the day,” says Code.org’s Wilson. “A key part of the strategy is getting computer science in formal classrooms early.”

“If girls and young women can’t picture themselves in those roles—roles with creativity and purpose—then they’re less likely to feel empowered, meaning they’re less likely to be intrinsically motivated in those STEM areas,” says Microsoft’s Sparvell.

Making computer science a foundational piece of the K-12 educational experience is core to encouraging more girls to explore computer science, according to Octavia Abell, computer science lead for ISTE.

It’s also essential to make sure STEM projects and courses are designed in a way that is more inclusive to girls and students of color, such as thinking about language barriers and implicit biases in the classroom, she adds. Educators also should look at computer science and STEM fields with unequal student participation, looking holistically about what underrepresented students need, and then strive to design learning structures not just around the curriculum, but around the students and their needs.

“It’s important for students to see themselves reflected in the educators and professionals who are working in computer science careers, not just as software developers, but as artists, animators, in the fashion industry,” Abell says.

“Children learn from their peers, from experiences outside of the school day, and of course in the classroom. Scaffolding a strong narrative that really upholds principles of equity and inclusion is so important.”

[Editor’s note: Don’t miss Part 2 of this series, Girls and STEM: A female engineer shares her path]

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura