A few years ago, I was looking for a gift for my nephew. He loved "experimenting" with various concoctions that he could formulate in his parents' kitchen, and I wanted to buy him a chemistry set. After some aimless wandering at the toy store, I asked a salesperson: "Where can I find a chemistry set?"
Her answer was, "We have some in the boys' section."
This experience was frustrating, but a lack of science-based toys for girls is only the beginning of a larger problem. In 2014, the majority of students working toward Canadian degrees were female, but within natural sciences and engineering, that proportion dropped to 38% (NSERC). Not only are women missing out on great study and career opportunities, but STEM fields are missing out on the contributions from a large portion of the population. The reasons behind this disparity start with girls who don't see any role models like themselves in STEM careers, is reinforced by gender stereotyping (including toy placement), and continues through to a workplace that doesn't always acknowledge women's needs. (Beede et. al, 2011)
We all want our girls to have limitless career and study options. The good news is that other than petitioning toy stores to change their categories, we have some research-backed ways that you can open up STEM possibilities to the girls in your life.
Talk about gender discrimination in STEM fields
It turns out that talking to girls about the challenges that women face in STEM fields can help. Weisgram & Bigler (2007) found that this increased both girls’ confidence as science students and their belief in the value of science. Perhaps understanding the challenges facing you make them feel less daunting; or maybe these girls just don’t like being told what they can’t do!
Confidence is a major barrier to girls in middle-school science classes. When girls don't feel confident, they hang back and, as a result, have fewer opportunities to handle the equipment and resources, allowing the boys to perform the experiment while the girls observe (Jovanovic and King, 1998).
Hands-on experiences help to improve their confidence. One way to be sure that girls are getting that experience is to expose them to science in a girls-only environment, (Salomone, 2003) like a science camp or girls-only programs like Girl Guides.
When kids see people who look like themselves doing science work, they are more likely to picture themselves in that role, too. Whether it's a person of similar race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, having that visual is a boost to science interest (Hughes et al., 2013). And there’s a bonus; strong female role models in math and science also helps boost their confidence (Rabenberg, 2013).
A gender-inclusive STEM culture will benefit from more brains working out the problems of the future. By inspiring confidence, introducing role models, and talking about discrimination, we can help our bright, curious girls realize their potential in STEM fields!
If your girls are looking for more people like them in science, check out the links below:
NSERC, Women in Science and Engineering in Canada (October 2017). Retrieved from http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/Reports-Rapports/WISE2017_e.pdf
Beede, David N. and Julian, Tiffany A. and Langdon, David and McKittrick, George and Khan, Beethika and Doms, Mark E., Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation (August 1, 2011). Economics and Statistics Administration Issue Brief No. 04-11. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1964782 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1964782
Jovanovic, J., & King, S. S. (1998). Boys and girls in the performance-based science classroom:
Who’s doing the performing? American Educational Research Journal, 35(3), 477–496.
Salomone, R. C. (2003). Same, different, equal: Rethinking single-sex schooling. New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press.
Rabenberg, T. A. (2013). Middle school girls’ STEM education: Using teacher influences, parent
encouragement, peer influences, and self efficacy to predict confidence and interest in math
and science. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (3603040)
Hughes, R. M., Nzekwe, B., & Molyneaux, K. J. (2013). The single sex debate for girls in
science: A comparison between two informal science programs on middle school students’
STEM identity formation. Research in Science Education, 43(5), 1979–2007.
Weisgram, E. S., & Bigler, R. S. (2007). Effects of learning about gender discrimination on adolescent girls' attitudes toward and interest in science. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31(3), 262-269. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/62050451?accountid=14692