Why We Need Representation And Mentors For Girls Studying Science And Technology

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.”

By fostering this kind of interest in young girls, organizations like Girls Inc. are opening them up to new opportunities, ones that allow them to try, fail, and then try again. While there is often a driving need for perfection right away with girls, the inherent “trial and error” nature of scientific study can beautifully expand their thinking beyond their societal conditioning. According to Mathur, boys are more likely to move on from failure to the next task, and there’s no reason girls shouldn’t develop the same skill.

However, the biggest part of getting girls into STEM fields is providing them with mentors and successful scientific figures and programs in their own communities. With their Eureka program (which focuses on rising 8th graders), Girls Inc. is dedicated to a three-pronged plan involving ongoing STEM education, personal development, and an emphasis on sports to help female students reach their potential.

The most crucial element, though, is the fact that girls get to see the science done up close and personal, giving a real world edge to the concepts that they learn about in class.

“They have a huge nanoscience program there [Albany, New York] and so the Eureka girls there are able to go and experience these nanoscience programs and go into the labs where they create the nanotechnology,” Mathur says. “In southern California, they’re at USC Santa Barbara and they get to do a lot of marine biology type things. Our girls in Fort Worth, Texas, have week-long programs at a Lockheed Martin plant, where the girls actually get to see how the jets are made… They have to see the relevancy in the STEM that they’re doing.”

This isn’t rocket science: When young women meet scientists and other members of the tech community that look like them and come from similar circumstances as them, working towards a career in STEM fields seems like a more achievable goal. By ensuring that these girls see that, yes, they do have a seat at the table, the next generation of scientists will continue to better reflect the world that they are seeking to understand.