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Why do girls leave STEM, even as early as elementary school?
It’s not necessarily because they don’t enjoy it or find it uninteresting. It’s most often because there aren’t many other girls or female role models, so they naturally gravitate to other areas with female peers.
Quite simply, for a girl to “stick it out” in STEM, they need lots of passion and plenty of encouragement.
Girls are often highly motivated by a desire to fit in with everyone else and are often inseparable from their groups
Case in point: “I was the only girl in my high school robotics class. This was only a few years ago and it was a fairly popular subject (because robots are awesome!), yet there were no girls.”
It had become known as a “boy” subject and the girls avoided selecting it because they knew their friends wouldn’t be there, leaving even less girls in the subject than beforehand. So when selecting further study options or entering the workforce, that’s still subconsciously in the minds of many girls.
“I don’t want to have no friends again.”
The other big problem is the lack of female role models in STEM. Name any TV show or movie that centres around STEM – Big Bang Theory, the smart scientists are male, the girl is a ditzy blonde; Back to the Future with male scientist/inventor Doc Brown; The Martian; Iron Man; and the list goes on endlessly.
Cartoons, movies, books, and even advertisements use the stereotypical male nerd to build confidence in their branding. Quite simply, the greatest exposure many girls have to go through to even consider STEM as a career path were all carried out exclusively by nerdy males, complete with white hair and glasses.
And if this stereotypical bias weren’t enough to turn girls away, this certainly manages to ingrain itself deeply enough into society that it surprises people when a girl does try to enter STEM. While you may not mean to be at all hurtful – a comment about not knowing a female engineer, an expression of surprise that a girl is interested in computer programming, a question about whether she’s really thought through her dream of becoming a physicist – all of which are small examples originating from social stereotyping that built a wall of negativity between girls and STEM.
Against that level of opposition, it’s hard to see many girls choosing STEM. So if you’ve got a STEM-interested girl in mind, there are some practical ways you can help them engage in these exciting areas. It would be a long process to encourage their passion – like providing female role models as well as giving encouragement and genuine interest.
As you’ve probably noticed, young children love to discover the world around them. Everything’s new and exciting to them and STEM is no exception. Give them a magnifying glass or a set of building blocks, and they’re all ready to go.
But if you give your daughter a mini kitchen and save the science kit for your son, that’s a pretty obvious message that her role isn’t in a lab. It may be unintentional, your assumption that she’d prefer dolls over a magnet set, but it has a big impact on her developing perception of the world.
As she gets older, let her help you use the power tools to design and build something (safely, of course!) just as much as you’d let any boy. Don’t discourage running around outside – getting dirty is a matter of course for girls as much as boys when you’re learning about different bugs under rocks, streams with tadpoles, yabbies and slippery algae, or which soil types get the muddiest.
If she’s intrigued by something, encourage that interest as much as possible. If she excitedly exclaims about the strange behaviour of the bird she saw outside, then listen. Show your own intrigue and offer to help her identify it. Before you know it, she might be carrying a field guide and binoculars around the park.
If she wants to know how roads are built after driving past a road work zone or how to fix a computer or what stars are made of, the same deal applies. Be genuinely attentive and discover things along with her. Go on a trip to the library together and read or watch STEM media together. If she’s old enough to appreciate it and the opportunity arises, get her to meet people actually working in her field of interest. Or if there’s a STEM event in town, ask her if she’d like to go along. Such opportunities can often inspire and foster a developing passion.
Along those lines, there’s also a growing body of popular culture bringing under-represented women to light. Movies such as Hidden Figures, and books such as The Glass Universe, even Roald Dahl’s Matilda (showing girls that nerdy is cool), are all bringing female STEM professionals to life.
There are also a few books like Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World as well as Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History, which showcase a selection of inspirational women that just goes to show a young girl how much opportunity there really is out there.
If she’s reluctant to do something because of peer pressure, isolation, or anticipation of being surrounded by males, there are still a few things that you can do:
- Encourage her to at least try. Whether it’s picking a school subject or participating in a program, let her attend a couple sessions and see how it goes.
- If she’s to pick a role model in STEM, (either a historic or famous figure, or someone she’s met) then try using them as an example of someone else who overcame similar challenges.
- Suggest that she treat the event as a learning experience. Say something like, “I was often one from many other girls interested in math or science events and competitions, but it rarely mattered because there was so much to see and learn from. I sometimes wish I had a female friend to share the time with, but it was still highly enjoyable exploring exhibitions and getting advice from presenters, male and female alike.” (Or anything along those lines, that’s too long to memorize!)
- Some STEM events or school activities are female-only to help less confident girls. If there’s an opportunity like this, it might be a great stepping stone so grab it!
- If she has shown reluctance but goes through and engages in a STEM activity anyway, commend her for doing it.
How Else Can You Support Girls Whose Interested in Stem?
As she gets older and continues to show an active interest in pursuing a career in her chosen interest, then your role is to continuously support her. Show that you’re really interested in what she’s learning and what role she’ll play in the future, ( STEM careers have great prospects and exciting innovations in store) and encourage her to follow her passion regardless of society’s negativity.
But if her interest does diminish naturally, please don’t force it. Being a pastry chef or a history teacher may well be her calling in life. Her early interest and STEM knowledge will continue to serve her well in our changing society and it’s more important for her to be confident in her own choices.
And as for the girls who love it, expose them to several amazing innovations, introduce them to the incredible female leaders, and encourage them to follow their dreams!
Arwen Nugteren is currently studying Chemistry at an Australian university. She balances work as a lab assistant with science writing. You can read more of Arwen’s work on her blog – https://scientiapotentiaest.blog