Yes, She Can

Engineering Girls’ Passion for STEM

Nobel Peace Prize winner and education activist Malala Yousafzai is quoted with saying “every girl deserves to take part in creating the technology that will change our world and change who runs it.”

Yes! The question is, how can we help instill passion in our girls to take on tech? Because the average young girl isn’t exactly jumping at the chance to learn how to code or take apart a computer. But why is that?

By now we’ve all seen that groundbreaking Like a Girl ad that stole the show during this year’s Super Bowl. (If you haven’t, I suggest you do!) It asked participants to illustrate what it means to do something “like a girl” and showed the effect it has on young females when people use the phrase as an insult. What made the ad particularly powerful was the way it highlighted the differences in how young women, boys, and young girls perceive the phrase. And it changed the conversation of what it means — to run like a girl, fight like a girl, throw like a girl, and so on — in an effort to champion girls’ confidence.

As the executive director of Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, I was drawn in immediately by this ad. At our Girls Inc. chapter and the 80-plus affiliates across the country, changing the conversation of what it means to do things “like a girl” and engraining these positive messages in our members at an early age is what we are all about. At Girls Inc., our girls do learn to code, and they do take apart computers.

But the barriers and biases that women and girls face outside our doors continue to cause too many of them to disregard science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Far too often, girls and women and our institutions second-guess their talents and we — our economy, academic institutions, and society — lose out.

While girls and boys as young as third grade start identifying math as “for boys” and not “for girls,” it is middle school age when girls typically start to lose interest in STEM. What happens next? They do not add that AP Physics class to their schedule, select an engineering major, or pursue a chemistry-focused career.

According to a recent study conducted by Tel Aviv University, teachers at the elementary level still harbor unconscious biases that dissuade girls from going into math and science fields. The researchers found a gender bias in math grades given to girls and boys, suggesting a gender gap in the teachers’ perceptions of their students. The results were striking: When teachers knew the children’s identities, they graded the girls lower in math than the outside grader, while scoring the boys higher. And the bias was not appearing in other school subjects — just math. The study followed the children all the way through high school, and found that girls who had been downgraded in elementary school were less likely to sign up for advanced math and science courses in high school.

Another article in the New York Times Magazine also examined why this gap persists, particularly at the university level. Often women cite a lack of encouragement from peers and professors, which they took to mean they did not have what it takes. Women also discussed how, with fewer women in STEM, there were fewer female role models and mentors available. The piece married this qualitative evidence with research from Yale University showing a disturbing bias towards viewing male candidates as more competent and worthy of a higher salary by both men and women when hiring.

Meanwhile, the need for qualified STEM workers is growing. By 2018, the bulk of STEM jobs will be in computing followed by engineering. Today, only about one in seven engineers is a woman in the US. And, while women hold half of all jobs in the U.S., less than 25 percent are in STEM fields.

Meeting these needs tomorrow requires bringing more girls into the STEM picture today. It means expecting girls to do well in math and science at an early age and shattering stereotypes that science is unfeminine or geeky or not “for a girl.” It’s about letting girls make mistakes and learn from them. It involves showing how STEM is already a part of their everyday lives.

For 30 years, Girls Inc. of Carpinteria has provided innovative, hands-on, minds-on STEM education to girls and their families in Carpinteria and Ventura County, building leaders and a path for a successful future. Our Eureka! Program for college-bound girls is designed to break gender stereotypes and inspire girls to consider STEM fields through engaging activities in which they are able to discover and explore different career paths.

We recently hosted coding workshops for our members and through our Juvenile Justice Program in Ventura, which taught teenage girls how to code and to see coding as a means to pursue their dream careers. Next month, 15 of our girls will be travelling to the nation’s capital to meet with senators, representatives, and even tour Google’s offices in D.C. — giving them a taste of various career opportunities.

These are just a few examples, from one organization.

For girls to truly succeed in STEM, they need a support system: adults who believe in their abilities; women who are in these fields to act as role models; and other girls who share their interests. For girls who do not have this advantage, that’s what Girls Inc. is here to provide. We introduce our members to other women who have gone on to succeed in STEM roles, surround them with peers who have similar backgrounds and goals, and every day we advocate and demonstrate our confidence in their abilities to reach higher heights.

Thankfully, there is growing recognition among schools, companies, nonprofits, and government to understand the causes and create real solutions. Together, we can continue to create homes, classrooms, afterschool programs, and a workforce that pave the way for encouraging young girls to discover STEM as fields full of opportunity and enrichment, and to solve problems by creating the technology that can change our world … like a girl!

Victoria Juarez is the executive director of Girls Inc. of Carpinteria, a local nonprofit that seeks to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.


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