It is no surprise to those of us in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related fields that there is a striking disparity of representation when it comes to women and minorities entering and staying in the field. It should also come as no surprise that research has proven that there is no difference in the performance levels of male and female students studying mathematics and science. Moreover, in advanced level courses female students perform on par with their male peers although male students are more likely to take the AP exams of calculus BC, physics B, and physics C. This can be attributed to the contrast in confidence and interest for STEM subjects between boys and girls during K-12 schooling. The gap is undeniable when these girls, now women, enter universities and pursue their bachelor’s degrees. Currently, of the degrees awarded, women earn only 19% in engineering, 18% in computer science and 39% in physics. Unfortunately the statistics worsen as the focus is narrowed to underrepresented minority women of whom only 3% receive bachelor’s degrees in engineering, 5% in computer sciences, and 7% in physical sciences. Finally, the trend continues beyond higher education as women who generally account for half the workforce comprise less than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.
Although there are still disparities between men and women in STEM there has been improvement over time and that is worth noting. The percentage of women in engineering has increased from 9% in 1993 to 15% in 2013, in fact, the overall number of women in science and engineering fields has been on the rise since the 1990s.3 Still, while science and engineering occupations remain male dominated it is interesting to point out that science and engineering-related occupations are now predominantly held by women (56%), this includes health related occupations such as nurse practitioners, pharmacists and physician assistants.
There are many different thoughts on what causes the gap for women in STEM and how that can be bridged, however, there is truth to the saying that seeing is believing. Research suggests that having female instructors in the form of teaching assistants and faculty members can have a positive impact on the retention of female STEM majors. Furthermore, the absence of females in these roles has been cited as a significant reason for why women leave science and engineering fields. If we want to empower girls then we need empowered women to lead the way, in other words, we need to shine the spotlight on more of our Hidden Figures. Representation matters, and because we want to inspire girls and women from all kinds of backgrounds it is important to expose them to a variety of role models and mentors in STEM. Several studies have shown that these underrepresented groups of students struggle to find STEM professionals they can identify with and presenting them with role models has the power to positively impact their interest and self-efficacy in STEM. One of the most significant figures of influence that students interact with are their teachers. Furthermore, for underrepresented populations minority STEM teachers provide much needed examples of professional success in the field and can even yield positive outcomes in academic achievement., For girls, seeing a female STEM teacher can provide a direct challenge to previously established negative stereotypes about women in STEM, thus, shaping their perceptions and attitudes towards pursuing a career in the STEM workforce. Ultimately, the girls we inspire today will pave the way for those who come tomorrow because empowered women empower more women.
The National Girls Collaborative Project provides a variety of resources for connecting girls with female STEM role models and mentors including FabFems, techbridge and SciGirls.
Mariam Manuel (@ScienceManuel) is an Instructional Assistant Professor at the University of Houston where she works for the STEM teacher preparation program, teachHOUSTON. She serves on the Texas Girls Collaborative Project (TxGCP) regional leadership team for the Greater Houston area and on the UTeach STEM Educators Association (USEA) executive board as secretary and alumni representative. Mariam is a former high school physics teacher and is passionate about engaging students from all backgrounds and cultures in the critical areas of STEM.
 Educational Research Center of America (2016). STEM Classroom to Career: Opportunities to Close the Gap
 STEMconnector & My College Options. (2013). Where are the STEM Students? What are their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs?
 National Science Board. 2016. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (NSB-2016-1).
 National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2015). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015. Special Report NSF 15-311. Arlington, VA
 National Girls Collaborative Project (2016). The State of Girls and Women in STEM
 National Science Board. 2016. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. Chapter 3 Science and Engineering Labor Force. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (NSB-2016-1).
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