Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Keeping Girls in STEM: 3 Barriers, 3 Solutions
Stereotypes and cultural norms dampen girls’ interest in STEM, but educators can counter the disparities with small changes to their practice.
March 12, 2019
Mathematicians and scientists are socially awkward men who wear glasses—at least, according to children. In several studies, when children were asked to draw a mathematician or scientist, girls were twice as likely to draw men as they were to draw women, while boys almost universally drew men, often in a lab coat. I decided to try this out at home with my 12-year-old son, who said, “Really anyone can be a mathematician, but this is your average one,” and promptly sketched a man in a checked oxford shirt with a pocket protector. Persistent, subconscious images of male mathematicians and scientists that start at the earliest ages may be one explanation why girls enter STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—at dramatically lower rates than boys. As an English teacher at a STEM magnet high school in New Jersey, I see these gender disparities in our engineering and computer science (CS) academies, even as our dynamic, thoughtful girls work hard to dispel stereotypes and recruit younger girls through coding camps and workshops. Our teachers certainly reflect the STEM fields of a generation ago: Three of our four CS teachers and engineering teachers are male. The irony is that girls perform as well as boys in math. Nationally, math test scores for girls have been consistently equal to or within two points of boys in fourth and eighth grades over several years; middle school girls pass algebra at higher rates than boys. In science, girls perform on par with boys and enroll in advanced science and math courses at equal rates as they move into high school. And then something happens: A gender gap in participation starts to appear as girls take fewer of the more advanced STEM courses and tests as they get closer to college. This gap widens the longer girls are in school and is often compounded by issues of race and class. Researchers don’t know yet if these continuing disparities in STEM reflect the slow pace of societal change, child-rearing expectations, or something deeper and more entrenched, such as the way we think about girls’ minds. But teachers can play a significant role in influencing or dispelling stereotypes in STEM education. Here are some studies from researchers and educators that may offer a few insights—and a few solutions. BARRIER 1: BUILDING A MATH IDENTITY The problem: One explanation for the gender differences in STEM participation may lie with those formative ideas about who a mathematician or scientist is. Stereotype threat—the mere perception that a group one belongs to is not good at a task—has been linked to lower academic performance, according to researchers. When girls become aware through both subtle and overt cultural messages about male superiority in math, it makes each encounter with math and technology more fraught, triggering self-doubt in even the most studious young girls. Both teachers and curriculum can inadvertently contribute to these perceptions. In one striking study from 2015, Israeli researchers divided sixth-grade exams into two sets for grading: One batch was graded by the teachers and included students’ names, and the other contained no student names and was graded externally. In math, teachers graded boys higher, while external graders rated girls higher. Those low teacher grades then dissuaded girls for years to come. Teachers often harbor these biases about themselves, too. Elementary school teachers are predominantly female, and many are anxious about teaching math, which can lead to lower achievement in math for girls. This persists into high school, where anxious teachers might be overly reliant on textbooks and rote methods of instruction. Images in those same textbooks can subconsciously trigger self-doubt in girls. One study found that when female high school students viewed chemistry textbooks containing pictures of female scientists, they performed better than female students who viewed textbooks containing only pictures of males. Solutions: In response, researchers say teachers can foster a growth mindset in students by emphasizing that practice rather than innate ability improves performance. Other studies show that brief, targeted interventions in which students learn that intelligence is not fixed but can be improved through training and hard work can help them persist through challenges, a trait that, in math and science, should be particularly advantageous for girls. Adding images of female mathematicians or scientists throughout classroom materials and assigning individual or group work that summarizes or contextualizes women’s achievements in these subjects can also shift perceptions about who belongs.