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Houston innovators: Mentoring women in STEM should be your new year's resolution

It's time to devote more attention and focus on closing the gender gap in STEM, according to this University of Houston expert. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Researchers and scientists can give girls a ‘leg up’.

According to Allison Master, assistant professor of psychological, health and learning sciences at the University of Houston: “Stereotypes that STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] is for boys begin in grade school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made their decision not to pursue degrees in computer science and engineering because they feel they don’t belong.”

Stats for STEM

The statistics are not encouraging. According to the U.S. Census: “Women made gains – from 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019 – but men still dominated the field. Men made up 52 percent of all U.S. workers but 73 percent of all STEM workers.”

“But there are huge disparities between STEM fields in the representation of women,” said Master, whose new paper looks at the emergence of gender gaps among children and adolescents. “Fields like computer science (25 percent of computer jobs are held by women) and engineering (15 percent of engineering jobs are held by women) have some of the lowest percentages of women among STEM fields. On the other hand, women are overrepresented in health fields (74 percent of health-related jobs are held by women).”

Her research specifically looked at computer science and engineering fields. “We wanted to gain a better understanding of why there is such wide variation among STEM fields, and what we can do earlier in the pipeline to encourage more young girls to enter these fields.”

Off to an unfortunate start

“We find that children start to believe that boys are more interested than girls in engineering by age six (first grade), and that children start to believe that boys are more interested than girls in computer science by age eight (third grade). The more that young girls believe those stereotypes, the less interested they are in those fields,” said Master. “If girls believe they won’t belong in fields like computer science and engineering because those are fields ‘for boys,’ then they may miss out on opportunities to try those kinds of activities.”

Master decided to conduct a study on stereotyping gender roles.

“In one study, we told eight and nine year-old children about two computer science activities. When we told them that ‘girls are much less interested than boys’ in one of the activities, we found that girls became much less interested and less willing to try that activity (compared to another activity for which we told them ‘girls and boys are equally interested.’) These stereotypes can shape that choices that young girls make, opening or closing doors to different career pathways,” said Master.

Narrowing the gender gap

How do we turn this around? Mentoring elementary-age students is one way we can increase the percentage of girls who are ushered into STEM fields.

Stem Like a Girl is an initiative that aims to encourage young women to enter the STEM fields. Their website states: “We believe girls need to see strong women in STEM fields to feel supported in pursuing their own science and engineering interests.” An IBM initiative in India has a similar aim. There are lots of terrific organizations working to connect women in STEM as role models for younger girls (e.g., Society of Women Engineers, Black Girls Code, National Girls Collaborative Project, etc.),” Master adds.

Many higher education institutions hold STEM camps for girls exclusively. For instance, University of California-Davis has a program called STEM For Girls – which boasts a student demographic of 79 percent ethnic minorities. The University of Houston Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute holds a summer camp each year called the Middle School Girls Coding Academy. This program is focused on middle school girls (rising 6th–8th graders) who learn Scratch, HTML, Game Design, and Python programming. The Academy runs another camp for high school-aged girls.

The big idea

It’s January – time for New Year’s resolutions. How about becoming a mentor or volunteering to give a presentation or teach a camp for young girls in STEM? Master goes on to say that even men in STEM should mentor young women.

“Role models are important because they help girls believe, ‘People like me can succeed,’ and ‘People like me belong here.’ But the most important thing that all role models can do (women and men, because men can also be very effective role models for girls in STEM) is to be relatable and make their work seem interesting and meaningful,” Master says.

So, does your institution have a program in robotics or coding just for girls? Or if you feel like you could benefit from a mentorship program yourself, you can apply at organizations like Harvard Women In Technology +. Harvard WIT+ helps to connect women early in their STEM careers with seasoned mentors.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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