By Rod Berger
Girls and young women remain less likely to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to a recently revealed report from Microsoft. The report, Closing The STEM Gap, exposes the clear chasm between the perceptions and realities of girls and young women contemplating their ‘role’ in STEM careers and the educational experiences required to build STEM competencies.
The lack of female representation in STEM-related career fields continues to mature as an area of focus and Microsoft’s findings shine a bright light on the need to more accurately connect one’s purpose and creative pursuits with relevant STEM opportunities.
Kiki Wolfkill, Studio Head at Halo Transmedia and Entertainment at 343 Industries, believes the narrative needs to change to more accurately communicate what STEM is and isn’t to young girls. “There are so many forces at work as girls are learning their way and it’s easy to get discouraged or to lose confidence. STEM is not one thing – it is the ability to create, use, and evolve technology to build a better world and it needs diverse voices and backgrounds – that has to be encouraged and nurtured.”
Microsoft’s research supports Wolfkill’s position. They’ve found that while girls and young women have ambitions to embrace careers that are creative and help the world, they haven’t been presented with examples that help to contextualize STEM opportunities within their interests and experiences.
The report, which included a research sample of more than 6,000 girls and young women from ages 10 to 30 across the United States, shows that 72% of girls and young women say that it is important for them to have a job that directly helps the world and over 90% describe themselves as creative.
The overarching question is, why do girls and young women either disengage or never seriously explore STEM education opportunities? Mary Snapp, Corporate Vice President and Head of Microsoft Philanthropies stated, “Microsoft commissioned this research to better understand what causes girls and young women to disengage from STEM studies, what can be done to fix the problem and share those learnings with others.”
The common frustration from women in STEM careers is the accidental nature and journey resulting in their STEM employment, asserts Shannon Loftis, General Manager of Publishing for Xbox. “I wish I had more awareness of my female predecessors prior to entering college. I feel like I stumbled into the [STEM] field. I can’t imagine this ‘lucky streak’ is common as a path to a career in STEM.”
Defining a STEM Path
Examination of STEM activities, inside and outside of school, illustrates a significant difference in the impact on girls and young women when they have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular programs. According to Microsoft’s research, over 75% of girls who participate in hands-on STEM activities outside the classroom feel a sense of empowerment. That finding drops to under 50% for those who only experience STEM activities in the classroom. Many students are finding external opportunities to collaborate through real-world challenges.
Nancy Conrad, Founder of the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, invites global teams of high school students to combine education, innovation, and entrepreneurship to design the future and solve global challenges through the principles of STEM. Over 50% of the participants are females and over one-third of this year’s finalist teams are comprised entirely of young women. Conrad asserts that the key is to remove the ‘box’ mentality that most educational campaigns prescribe, especially when looking at the inclusion of young women.
“To encourage innovation, we must embrace the new idea that there simply is no box. We must approach the STEM fields with a mindset that combines creative thinking and design with global purpose.” The Conrad Foundation honors the legacy of Conrad’s late husband, Apollo 12 astronaut and the third man to walk on the Moon, Charles “Pete” Conrad, through annual challenges.
Participants in the Insights report shed light on the need to break out of the ‘box’ and deconstruct what STEM means to girls and young women. “I think all the jobs that are in the STEM fields are rigid,” according to a suburban high school student who participated in Microsoft’s research. She added, “They [STEM jobs] don’t really seem like fields where you can be creative.”
A rural high school student and research participant added, “The word ‘engineer’ is misunderstood. I think to most people it sounds like more of a masculine-based job.”
One method of debunking STEM myths is to more proactively provide girls and young women the courses and activities that more accurately define STEM and engage them in hands-on curriculum. The report found that only 60% of girls understand how STEM subjects are relevant for their personal and professional pursuits. That same finding doubles when girls learn about real-world STEM careers according to the research.
Another, more comprehensive approach comes from community support. Only 36% of girls will, of their own volition and without parental encouragement, pursue computer science. But when they receive verbal encouragement from their parents, over 65% of middle school girls are likely to study computer science in high school.
Snapp contends, in a recent post, that unless things change quickly, many in this bright, hopeful generation will not enter STEM fields. “These are among the reasons Microsoft Philanthropies provides grants to nonprofits that prioritize increasing diversity in computer science.”
Purposeful and continuous examination of the role STEM plays in the development of diversity-rich curriculum and hands-on experiences for girls and young women enhances the outlook for STEM fields. According to Girls Who Code, by 2027, a steady decline shows that less than 25% of women will be represented in computer science fields. The time is now to craft a STEM message inclusive of real-world opportunities ripe with creativity, social responsibility, and purpose supported by parents, community organizers, and the private sector.