With intentional efforts focused on eliminating barriers to STEM education, teachers can support girls as they pursue STEM studies

The ups and downs of girls in STEM

With intentional efforts focused on eliminating barriers to STEM education, teachers can support girls as they pursue STEM studies

Ditch the gendered language

One suggestion experts offer companies hiring for STEM roles is to be extra deliberate about the pronouns, descriptions, visuals, and other messages they use in hiring. One of the main objections cited in the theories of why girls are steered away from STEM is the overwhelming male-dominated culture (which recent census statistics happen to back up, as discussed above). Not only do recruitment pros run the risk of having applicants self-select out, but they may also give the wrong idea that they prefer male candidates for whatever reason.

It’s the same concept in school. Instead, keeping language neutral in the classroom, descriptions of courses, and other communication doesn’t ever leave out boys from the invitation, it simply ensures that girls and nonbinary students are equally welcome. 

“I think growing up there’s stereotypical girls’ jobs and guys’ jobs. In elementary school, you see scientists as a boy. It’s very stereotypical and it’s not true,” Auer said of her experience with gender imbalance in STEM fields. “There’s a lot of women in STEM. It’s powerful.”

Challenge implicit biases

Explicit bias is easier to combat, but its insidious sibling implicit bias is much, much more difficult to spot—in fact, it’s imperative that the most open-minded of us must realize our own implicit bias steers our decision-making more that we’d care to admit. Since its debut on the scene in 1995, researchers have worked hard to figure out what drives implicit bias (things like our natural instincts for pattern recognition, our penchant for shortcuts, and societal cues), but one thing is very clear: these biases are solidified at an alarmingly young age and applied to the very young as well.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW), which originated its research in a paper disproving the myth that college impairs a woman’s fertility (seriously) offers an alarming observation that parents and teachers often underestimate girls’ math abilities as early as preschool. Speaking of math anxiety, AAUW also mentions another implicit bias in math teachers, who assume girls need to work harder to achieve the same level as boys, grade them harder, and pass on the myth of the “math brain”–the belief that there is a biological, cognitive difference between males and females.

Auer agreed that shifting into STEM was a little different than other courses in previous grades. “Some material is challenging—different ways of thinking, different labs. Not only the material but the ways of learning.” Still, once she understood, she appreciated the challenge.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the gloomier, unbalanced side of women in STEM. Really, really easy. Slowly and steadily, women are gaining—from 8 percent of US STEM workers in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019 (while the total of women in the workforce went from 38 percent to 48 percent). But Anna Auer’s experience has only been encouraging, and she recommends STEM to girls anywhere.

“When I got to high school, everyone was taking chemistry, so I did too. I thought it would be so hard and awful. It was hard, but I really liked it!” 

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