Imagine walking into a room and not seeing a single person that looks like you. Not seeing yourself reflected in your peers, and not feeling like you could possibly fit. For girls, this is unfortunately still the case for many who are interested in pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). While there have been steps forward, the tech industry is still a deeply rooted boys club in many regards.
According to recent statistics, only 0.4% of female students are pursuing computer sciences to the collegiate level, despite the fact that 74% of middle school girls show a particular interest in tech fields. In the US, only about 18-20% of engineering students are women, and while women lead in earning degrees in the biological sciences (54.9%), in other scientific fields they make up around 27%. These numbers are all marked improvements, but obviously, there’s more work to be done.
Organizations like Girls Inc. and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) are working towards making STEM fields more accessible to girls who show an aptitude. According to Jennie Mathur — one of the Senior Learning Managers specializing in STEM education at Girls Inc. — representation is key.
“When they get up into higher education, a big issue is that they don’t see themselves in their peers,” she notes. “So they get into a college class, they could be the only or they’re one of a few women in the class, and if they’re a woman of color, then they’re likely the only one. It makes it very difficult when you don’t see yourself and there’s nobody else in a class that looks like you. People tend to pair off with others that are like them, so they don’t even have that support if the guys are all getting together and having their study groups.”
If mathematic and scientific fields of study are already stereotypically assumed to be masculine spaces, it can make it even more daunting for young women who are trying to break through. However, something as straightforward as exposing young students to women successfully working in STEM fields can make all the difference.
“They need to see themselves in those fields,” explains Mathur. “If they don’t, there really not going think of those fields as a place for them. Role models are incredibly important. That translates better into a girl eventually going into a STEM major or a STEM field than her just having done one coding activity an afternoon.”