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Yes. Girls can be scientists, too

Mar 9, 2016

Credit Intel Free Press / Flickr Creative Commons / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What do your kids say they want to be now? Police officer? Firefighter? Pirate?

When I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist. When I wanted to be an astronaut like Mae Jemison, my mom bought me a telescope. When I wanted to be a chemist, she got me a microscope.

But somewhere along the way, my interest in science waned until I became dispassionate.

While it's common for kids to change their minds every other day about what they want to be when they grow up, studies show that keeping young girls interested in the sciences through school and into their careers is particularly challenging.

These days, more girls in Michigan are getting into robotics, according to Detroit Free Press. The growth in female participation is happening at all levels – on co-ed teams and all-girl teams.

"I'm seeing an uptick," Gail Alpert, president of the state's robotics association told the Free Press. "They're taking on critical roles. They're drivers. They're coaches. They're mentors."

...getting more women into STEM could both reduce the gender wage gap and ensure that single mothers don't have to struggle to put food on the table.

The growth is happening amid widespread efforts to encourage more interest in STEM careers among girls.

This is great news, right? Sort of. While more is being done to get girls excited about science, we still have a long way to go.

What is this STEM thing, anyway?

STEM is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. People in these fields have jobs like software and Web developers, statisticians, information security analysts, and biomedical engineers.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) shows employment in occupations related to STEM is projected to grow to more than nine million between 2012 and 2022. That’s an increase of about one million jobs over 2012 employment levels.

According to BLS, workers in some STEM occupations earned a median annual wage of nearly $76,000  –more than double the $35,080 median wage for all workers in May 2013. Many of the top-paying occupations are related to engineering.

But the state of women in STEM is pretty bleak, considering the fact that they make up half of the U.S. workforce. According to the Huffington Post:

In the United States, women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Around the globe, just 30% of the world's researchers are women. Just 3% of technology startups in Silicon Valley are started by women.

So why aren't more women in STEM?

A February 2010 study released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found three ideas that affect the number of women in these fields:

First, the notion that men are mathematically superior and innately better suited to STEM fields than women are remains a common belief, with a large number of articles addressing cognitive gender differences as an explanation for the small numbers of women in STEM. A second theme revolves around girls’ lack of interest in STEM. A third theme involves the STEM workplace, with issues ranging from work-life balance to bias.

So, does that mean women aren't smart enough? Not necessarily. According to the AAUW study:

One of the largest gender differences in cognitive abilities is found in the area of spatial skills, with boys and men consistently outperforming girls and women. Spatial skills are considered by many people to be important for success in engineering and other scientific fields. Research highlighted in this report, however, documents that individuals’ spatial skills consistently improve dramatically in a short time with a simple training course. If girls grow up in an environment that enhances their success in science and math with spatial skills training, they are more likely to develop their skills as well as their confidence and consider a future in a STEM field.

But the issue runs deep, and to address it we need to start at the beginning, before girls are exposed to that negative messaging.

And what about the idea that women just aren't interested in science and math? According to Metro Parent, girls encounter myriad messages that they might not "belong" in science from culture, their peers, and maybe unintentionally from authority figures. And few women in the field means a lack of visible role models:

The U.S. Department of Education has found that girls – and boys – who have “a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science” are more likely to choose to pursue science subjects and, importantly, more likely to perform well in those areas. This suggests that improving girls’ confidence in their science abilities could actually influence their performance and choices. But the issue runs deep, and to address it we need to start at the beginning, before girls are exposed to that negative messaging.

Many people think women leave STEM academic careers because they cannot balance work and family responsibilities. The AAUW report found:

Although both women and men feel that having a family hinders their success at work, women are more likely than men to report forgoing marriage or children and delaying having children. Among women and men with families, women are more likely to report that they are the primary caregiver and have a partner who also works full time. A recent retention study found that most women and men who left engineering said that interest in another career was a reason, but women were far more likely than men to also cite time and family-related issues.

How do we fix it, and why should we even care?

According to the Huffington Post, we should encourage more girls to go into STEM careers because:

In a country in which the average women still earns 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns, and in a country in which the majority of single parents are single mothers, getting more women into STEM could both reduce the gender wage gap and ensure that single mothers don't have to struggle to put food on the table. Not only are there currently more jobs in STEM than in any other industry, but most of these high-tech jobs are high-paying, as well. In order to get to the point where women earn 50% of STEM degrees and hold 50% of STEM jobs, we need to start at the very beginning.

Research tells us that middle school is a critical time to instill interest in the sciences in girls.

Parents can help their kids see that science can be fun, provide them with the tools for education, look for clubs, special classes and other activities, and encourage a mindset of potential growth.

It's also important to show young girls that they can love science while staying true to their interests, because aspects of STEM are in everything we do. We also need to work to improve girls' confidence in their own abilities.

Sarah Jacobs runs design-and-robotics haven, The Robot Garage – in Birmingham, Rochester Hills, and Grosse Pointe Park – with her husband, Jonathan.

She told the Free Press:

Instead of trying to tell everyone that they should be interested in becoming an engineer or scientist, which not everyone’s going to want to do, I think it’s more important to meet kids at their own level of interest. Whatever they’re interested in, science and technology is a part of it.