Science Opinion

Girls and STEM

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 06, 2014 3 min read
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What if it is only folklore? What if girls are adept and clamoring to be in STEM classes and women, in STEM fields? Daniel and Susan Voyer just released their study Gender Differences in Scholastic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis in the Psychological Bulletin. They raise doubts that about the generally accepted belief that girls are not interested in science and math. They turn it into an urban legend.

The meta-analysis asked and answered questions about the generally reported STEM gap between genders from elementary school through the university. “The largest effects were observed for language courses, and the smallest gender differences were obtained in math courses. In contrast, the magnitude of gender differences was significantly smaller in mathematics, science, and social sciences courses when compared to global measures.” The results of this academic, scientific meta-analysis showed that gender differences “favored females in all fields of study” (p.21). They encourage further study to examine gender differences in school performance.

What does this tell us about our assumptions and how they may play out as teachers and leaders? With little doubt, the message is clear. We need to be invested in all students’ ability to access higher-level courses that are rigorous and prepare them well for college and career. Whether they are female or male we have the same obligation to encourage and support their learning capacities. While the studies continue and the information grows, will it make a difference in our practice?

A recent ThinkProgress.org article reported that a study released by the Center for Talent Innovation that found “women call it quits 45 percent more often in their rookie years at ... STEM jobs than men.” They also reported that 41% of those graduating from engineering or science programs are women. So it isn’t that women are not going into college with the intention of going into STEM fields. Why are they leaving? The article points to the fact that women are primary care givers if their family includes children. STEM careers tend to be rigid in their demand for time. They also cite bias that senior leaders fail to believe women can reach top jobs in STEM fields. And finally, they cite a tremendous wage gap between male and female wage earners in STEM fields. Once discovered, that wouldn’t be encouraging for women wanting to advance their careers.

On one hand, we have to ask ourselves why we would encourage female students in this direction. And on the other hand, we need women in these fields to push at the boundaries and make the changes necessary. Raising a family is important for both mothers and fathers. Flexibility in the workplace has been figured out in many other fields. There are successful female doctors of every specialty. There are female college presidents, governors, senators, and members of congress, there are female school leaders, and CEO’s. It has been figured out. The belief that women cannot rise to the top of a STEM field is ridiculous and that must be addressed. And finally, the wage gap is simply absurd.

So not only do we have an obligation to prepare all students for STEM fields, it seems that particularly for young women, we need to prepare them to be scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians AND we need to prepare them to be advocates who can champion their cause and fight for equal opportunities in these fields. If what this article has reported doesn’t change, then the rhetoric about falling behind other nations in these fields will remain. With women as almost half the graduates in these fields, the problem does not appear to be lack of interest or ability. Perhaps we have stumbled onto something else. Perhaps it is the field, at least in part, that is failing to welcome women into its workforce and therein lies the problem to be addressed.

If not corrected, we will lose the talents of someone like Brittany Wenger, a Florida high school graduate (from Out of Door Academy) who is now a Duke University college freshman. She was included as one of Time Magazine’s list of “30 People Under 30 Changing the World”. Why? As part of her high school work, she wrote a program to analyze needle biopsy samples that identifies malignant breast tumors with 99.9 percent accuracy...all because she became interested in artificial intelligence as a seventh grader. She received Google’s 2012 science fair grand prize for the project..."Global Neural Network Cloud Service for Breast Cancer.” She was 17 years old. Now that girl’s contribution cannot be lost. She is a lesson for leaders and teachers alike. We need to be watching for more of these girls and we need to have the STEM doors open wide.

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