It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields. Nationally, in 2019, women made up 48% of the workforce, but just 27% of STEM workers. California does slightly better than the nation. San Francisco, San Jose and Fremont all rank among the top five highest cities for women in these fields. But respectively, women still only make up 27.9%, 25.8%, and 25.7% of STEM roles filled by women in those cities.
Why is a state that often leads the nation in change not doing any better in employing women in science and technology fields? What’s at the core of the issue, and what can educators do to help change things?
Only 30% of students taking computer science courses in California high schools are female. Yet, females make up 49% of California high school students.
To change this, California must close the exposure and bias gaps and do a better job of giving female students proof of their STEM capabilities.
Why aren’t there more female students taking STEM courses?
The answer is exposure and bias. Girls tend to be stigmatized from an early age and steered away from pursuing STEM fields or into pursuing only select fields — for example being a nurse instead of a doctor or a dental assistant instead of a dentist. Female students also too often don’t see women teaching STEM classes or working in STEM careers. They don’t see that women can — and do — perform and even excel in these careers.
The California education system can close the exposure gap by introducing girls to the idea of technical careers at an early age — as early as possible. It can start by making computer science a required foundation course for every student. That way, students — male or female — have a knowledge of what it is, some exposure to know whether they find it interesting and the confidence to move on to the next level if they do.
The districts that have made computer science a graduation requirement or part of their first-year seminar or academy courses are seeing girls pursue different opportunities after high school because they’re exposed to STEM at a younger age.
That exposure should happen no later than eighth or ninth grade. It can happen even earlier if we have high school students do STEM-focused outreach to local elementary schools or have elementary STEM fairs as a common statewide practice. That exposure can cross grades and curriculum and even include parents.
Bringing in industry representation to every grade level, and especially in high school, where students are really starting to think about careers, is also key. Guest speakers from industry or academia create connections. And if we make sure there is female representation, even better.
In addition to the foundation of computer science, we need to get students involved in cross-curricular projects where teachers can start to show students how these areas come together — looking at how computer science and math and marketing interconnect for example.
Today’s youth are digital natives. They have access to every bit of information available at their fingertips. It’s not about teaching them. It’s about providing opportunities. Cross-curricular challenge projects are important in exposing them to STEM. Add some industry or academic connections, and we create a whole new experience. Unfortunately, we’re not used to bringing that into education. When it’s happening, it’s because of one teacher or one principal.
Another key to exposure is equipping students with confidence in their actual abilities and breaking down the social and gender stereotypes that tell girls they can’t do science and technology careers. One way we can do that is aptitude-based career guidance.
Research at the University of Missouri found that assessments of young women’s aptitudes show them that they can succeed in STEM careers, but often self-select themselves out of those careers because of inherent cultural biases. For instance, national research found that female students had more than 10 times more aptitude than interest in careers in architecture and engineering. But because most secondary career guidance solutions rely on asking students about their interests, it only supports young women selecting themselves out of STEM careers.
If we sit down with young women and show them the results of an aptitude assessment that tells them they can be good at computer science, math and similar careers, we give them solid evidence of — and confidence in — doing something they may have never thought about doing.
If we build on that with female representation in the class, from academia and industry, early exposure, and access to cross-curricular exposure, we begin to permanently address the lack of females in STEM careers in California and everywhere.
It’s about a fundamental shift in how we approach educating kids today. The onus to create exposure and break down biases too often falls on the individual teacher or school. We really need statewide support for these programs regardless of the school or the socio-economic demographic of the students.
Melissa Jenkins is a former California educator and customer engagement manager at YouScience, a company that provides aptitude-based career guidance and certification. Trisha Oksner is a career center technician at Nipomo High School and Central Coast New Tech High School in Nipomo, California.
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