Girls draw even with boys in high school STEM classes, but still lag in college and careers

March 12, 2017

Girls at Dublin High School's engineering academy conduct an experiment about weight and density.

High school engineering classrooms look a lot different than they did a few decades ago, and it’s not just because of computers. Those classes now have girls. Lots of girls.

Thanks to long-standing efforts by teachers, administrators and nonprofits, girls now make up about half the enrollment in high-school science and math classes. They are scoring almost identically to their male classmates on standardized tests, according to data compiled by the National Girls Collaborative Project, a nonprofit funded in part by the National Science Foundation that aims to increase girls’ participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

But progress lags beyond the walls of high schools. The percentage of women majoring in STEM fields at California State University, for example, has remained a steady 37 percent since 2007, even though women make up 55 percent of all undergraduates. At the University of California, women make up 52 percent of enrollment, but only 24 percent of those studying for engineering degrees are women. Still, the numbers have improved a bit: In 1999, only 21 percent of those studying engineering at UC were women.

The numbers are even lower in the workplace, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. About 11 percent of physicists and astronomers are women. Just over 10 percent of electrical and computer hardware engineers are women. Fewer than 8 percent of mechanical engineers are women.

“What this all means is that girls can do it, but they’re choosing not to,” said Carol Tang, executive director of the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco and head of the California Girls in STEM Collaborative, a coalition of organizations that advocate for girls in math and science. “We need a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives in science and math. Every girl who drops out of STEM, we’re all going to feel it.”

Boys consistently outnumbered girls in all high-school math and science classes until the early 1990s, when girls started pulling even and now, in some schools, even outnumber boys, according to a study by the American Association of University Women, although girls still lag in engineering and computer science classes.

Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to nonprofits like the AAUW, the Girl Scouts, Girls Inc., Tech Bridge and Girls Who Code, among other groups. Those organizations have studied the gender gap and offered after-school STEM programs for girls, scholarships and grants for girls pursuing STEM in college, and mentorship programs that match high-school girls with women in STEM fields, among other programs.

The California Department of Education and the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls also played a part in getting more girls into STEM: organizing town hall events throughout the state for girls, teachers, employers and policy makers to discuss ways to increase girls’ access to STEM classes and careers. The Next Generation Science Standards, California’s new K-12 science standards, includes guidance for teachers on encouraging girls in science. Strategies include bringing women scientists to be guest teachers for a day, organizing group projects and encouraging collaboration, making sure girls’ questions are answered thoroughly, starting science education as early as possible to boost their confidence, and showing real-life applications for abstract concepts.

“I am very passionate about increasing the number of women and girls in STEM classes throughout the state,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a former public high school science teacher, wrote in an email. “In California, diversity is our strength. Our society, our businesses and our economy succeed when we tap into everyone’s talents, creativity and energy. Creating a diversified workforce isn’t just something to do for its own sake. It really helps everybody.”

General societal changes, such as more progressive attitudes about women’s roles at home and the workplace, have also played a part in the increase in girls’ interest in STEM. But those shifts have not been across the board: the number of women in computer science, for example, has actually declined since the 1980s, according a study by the American Association of University Women. In 1990 women made up 35 percent of those in computer and math professions, but by 2013 that number had fallen to 26 percent.

To help reverse that trend, colleges have been trying to encourage women in the computer and engineering fields. UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering started a program in 2014 called Girls in Engineering in an attempt to narrow the gender gap. Each year, the program brings 120 middle-school girls to the UC Berkeley campus for summer engineering camps taught by female professors and students.

“Both boys and girls tend to be equally interested in math and science in elementary school, but for some girls there’s a drop-off in confidence once they hit middle school,” said program director Lizzie Hager-Barnard, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. “And then if you’re not taking the right classes in middle school, it sets you behind in high school.”

One obstacle, she said, is that when considering career goals, 5th-grade girls often say they want to help people. When asked about engineering, they dismiss it as boring, she said.

“We have to give girls examples of how engineers do help people – they work with doctors to make better drugs, they make systems for clean air and water,” she said.

Another obstacle is video games, she said. Most video games feature male characters, and girls are sometimes depicted in demeaning ways, either as sidekicks or hypersexualized. A June 2016 study published in the Journal of Communication examined 31 years of female video game characters and found that while female characters were less sexualized than they were in the 1990s, they’re still far more sexualized than male characters.

Some video games, such as Temple Run 2, even charge extra for female characters. So adolescent girls might play less, missing out on learning those computer skills, or get a general impression that girls are unwelcome in the computer world. In 2013, video game developer Zoe Quinn had to move out of her home due to threats of rape and death, sparked by an online screed by an ex-boyfriend. Shortly afterwards, video game reviewer Anita Sarkeesian suffered a similar onslaught of harassment because of a video she made on females in gaming. Several other women in the video game field have reported similar attacks.

Carolyn Jones/EdSource

Girls make up 35 to 40 percent of the enrollment in Dublin High School’s engineering academy.

Eugene Chou, chair of Dublin High School’s engineering program and the 2017 Project Lead the Way engineering teacher of the year in California, said she visits middle schools directly to recruit girls into the engineering academy, a specialized three-year program that prepares students for careers in engineering.

She asks middle school math and science teachers about any bright girls they have in class, and then meets with the girls individually to persuade them to continue their STEM studies in high school. She also attends school fairs and career nights to reach girls who might be undecided. In addition, she tries to make her classes more social, with lots of group projects and activities, so girls – and boys, too, for that matter – will see it as a fun place to be.

“When I started here eight years ago, you’d walk in an engineering class and there’d be one girl,” she said. “Last year it was 20 percent. Now it’s about 35 to 40 percent. So we’re getting there.”

Chou, who has a master’s degree in industrial engineering from UC Berkeley, decided to skip a career in engineering and become a teacher in part to encourage girls interested in STEM. She said she never felt discriminated against while in college, but she did note that none of her female classmates are currently working as engineers. They all left the profession for different careers, or they quit when they had children.

According to the National Science Foundation, only 17.1 percent of industrial engineers are women. And they’re paid a lot less than their male coworkers: women in science and technology earned an average of $55,000 annually nationally in 2013, compared to $80,000 for men.

“Going into a workplace that’s primarily male can be difficult. You’re this odd person out, and you miss the camaraderie,” Chou said. “It can be hard.”

On a recent afternoon in Chou’s principles of engineering classes, none of the dozen or so girls interviewed by EdSource said they minded being in STEM classes with more boys than girls.

“I really love mathematics, and I want to be an engineer,” said Anvitha Kachinthaya, a sophomore. “I’ve never been one of the only girls in a class, and even if I was, I wouldn’t mind. If I really wanted to be there, it wouldn’t bother me who else was in the class.”

Arina Sobol, whose family immigrated from Lithuania when she was in 2nd grade, said she wants to be a computer engineer because her parents are engineers. They took engineering classes, as well as English classes, after immigrating, she said.

“Last year, my computer class was almost all boys and it did bug me a little. But my dad said it doesn’t matter. If you like it, keep doing it. Keep trying,” she said. “He was right. Now it doesn’t bother me.”

The fact that Sobol’s parents are engineers is typical of many girls in STEM classes, said Tang, of the California Girls in STEM Collaborative. Having a mentor in the STEM field is a key factor in girls’ decisions to pursue math or science careers, she said.

At a recent career day at a middle school, one of the girls asked a female scientist if she has a pet, Tang recalled. Some people laughed, but “that was actually a great question,” Tang said.

“Girls want to know, can you still have a pet and be a high-powered scientist? Can you like cooking? Can you have fun? Basically, these girls want to know if they can be like you,” she said. “It’s important for girls to hear successful women say, ‘I have a life, and I’m happy with my life.’ ”

Tang, a former paleontology professor at Arizona State University, said that to really close the gender gap in the STEM fields, employers need to do more to recruit and retain female workers. Women make up only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce nationwide, according to the National Science Foundation. Minority women make up less than 10 percent.

The male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley doesn’t help, Tang said. High-profile sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints and lawsuits against Uber, Twitter and tech venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins, among others, as well as the pay inequity, only add to the perception that tech firms are unfriendly to women. In the Uber case, which made headlines in February, a former engineer blogged about the San Francisco-based company, claiming she had been sexually harassed by her direct supervisor and when she complained to human resources, she was told the supervisor was a “high performer” who wouldn’t be punished. Uber said it’s investigating the matter.

“If you’re a parent, do you really want to send your bright, precious daughter into that sort of environment? Most parents would say no,” Tang said.

Tech companies say they’re trying to change their workplaces. Google says it’s working harder to recruit more women and people of color, and 65 percent of its employees have undergone training on reducing bias in the workplace. Still, only 19 percent of its tech employees are women, according to its website, and in 2015 only 21 percent of the company’s new tech hires were women.

Diversity in the STEM field is important because women – as well as people of color –  bring different perspectives to solving problems, and even identifying what the problems are, Tang said. That range of viewpoints can be enormously beneficial to any team of mathematicians or scientists, she said.

“As we get more toward robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace, the thing that cannot be replicated by machines is empathy, creativity, team building, social skills, emotional intelligence – all things that diversity can help build,” she said. “If tech firms are only recruiting from 50 percent of the population, that’s a huge untapped market. And a huge loss for all of us.”

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