7 Ways to Get More Girls and Women into STEM (and Encourage Them to Stay)

A recent forum brought together industry and academic experts to consider how to get more girls interested in science and engineering and keep them engaged.

What ambitious young person wouldn't want to be in a STEM field? Job growth continues to outpace other industries. Ninety-three in 100 STEM-related occupations pay wages above the national average. And programming jobs, specifically, are growing 12 percent faster than the market average and paying $20,000 more than jobs that don't require coding skills.

Well, apparently, women in substantial numbers are making that choice. Women make up only a third of the world's STEM graduates, and they hold just under a quarter of IT jobs. Plus, the pipeline isn't looking very promising; less than 25 percent of the students who took the advanced computer science placement exam were women.

Those were some statistics shared by Karen Quintos, chief customer office for Dell, during a forum hosted by the Atlantic Monthly titled, "Cracking the Code: The Next Generation of Women in STEM." The event drew participation from youth, academia, non-profits and the corporate sector to examine questions around what it means "to raise and become a woman in STEM."

While much of the discussion hammered home some expected themes — that young girls at some point begin thinking they're not as smart as boys or that the culture of Silicon Valley can be brutally discouraging towards women — a lot of the conversation also offered practical advice worth considering in schools and colleges as people seek strategies for drawing more female representation in science, technology, engineering and math.

Turn STEM into STEAM

"STEM, unfortunately, has been branded as a male domain," said Eric Klopfer, director of MIT's Scheller Teacher Education Program. Integrating the arts as well as the humanities (the "A" in STEAM) "has certainly broadened the appeal" and "makes STEM feel more playful, more creative and expressive and opens the domain in terms of appeal to a much broader range of people."

Currently, Klopfer noted, "We're seeing things labeled STEAM — like, 'We're going to make a robot and decorate the robot.'" That's not enough, he said. "It's really about thinking about those things in a more integrative way." That interdisciplinary work "allows people to play to their strengths and do the things they're interested in but also forces them into other areas as well that they may find interesting."

But achieving it, "like a lot of challenges in education," he noted, "requires a serious investment in educator development. It means not just teaching [teachers] how to use the materials, but teaching them about the underlying topics and what's great about those things. It's one thing to know how to teach a kid how to do programming; it's another thing to understand why it's powerful and interesting and great in itself."

Use Storytelling

Children's author Andrea Beaty believes stories that have a "wide representation of all kinds of kids" can be an effective way to hook girls into STEM, especially at the earliest ages. Beaty has a background in science and technology, and her books reflect that. "They happen to have a girl who's an engineer and a girl who's a scientist and a boy who's an architect."

She insisted, however, that the books aren't necessarily about science or engineering. They're "about perseverance and curiosity — because every kid has those traits. If we can help all kids look at it as a human endeavor, they'll think, 'Well, I'm curious. Maybe I can try this experiment.' Or 'Maybe I can go out and try making things.' That’s an interesting doorway to take into STEM," she said.

Beaty also gave a callout to librarians. Describing libraries as "greatly underused," she highlighted how "librarians are on this" by starting maker spaces and acquiring technologies that teachers can borrow for the classroom use. Her advice: give librarians a chance to help.

Make the Link to "Helping Professions"

Girls and young women are drawn to "helping professions," asserted Christine Cunningham, founder and director of Engineering is Elementary at the Museum of Science, Boston. In her work developing education curriculum, Cunningham said that while engineers have "made or touched 98 percent of what we interact with in the world," one of the ways to make the subject more enticing for girls is to show "explicit connections" between engineering and "people, animals, the environment."

An anecdote backing that up was shared by Paul Parravano, co-director in the office of the president at MIT, who referenced an introductory engineering courses offered at his institution. "Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology (PPAT)" has consistently been "oversubscribed" and attracts more female students than male students, who are "thinking about how they can make a better world."

Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits, shared her own experience. littleBits incorporates colorful circuits into LEGO-like blocks to allow kids to invent things. Every few months, the company holds a challenge — "to invent something that moves or something that pranks someone," explained Bdeir. "One of the challenges we launched was, invent for good." It drew "hundreds" of entries. One girl, she recalled, created a sensor for a grandfather with vision problems; it could be placed on an object and whenever he approached it too closely, it would buzz to tell him to move away. Others created light patterns for wheelchairs "so they could be seen from farther away." That particular challenge, added Bdeir, drew more entries from girls than boys.

Support Girls' Clubs

This year the Girl Scouts of the USA have gone all in with support for STEM with a new set of curriculum and badges. Next year, announced Suzanne Harper, senior director of the Girl Scouts' national STEM strategy, it will be introducing additional resources on cybersecurity and putting an emphasis on similar programs for older girls.

In the meantime, however, her organization faces a major challenge: "Our scale" — getting those STEM activities out to the 800,000 second- and third-graders for which they're intended. The thousands of volunteers who run scout events need help from "more STEM professionals who want to lend a hand, to come to a Girl Scout council event and work with the girls or come to one troop meeting."

That mentoring really hits a note for the scouts, Harper added, because it introduces them to all kinds of jobs and fields they never knew existed — such as the person who came to an event to talk about how she "invents ice cream flavors." As she pointed out, "Girls don’t even know they don’t know."

Address Race and Ethnicity in the Vision

Too often in conversations about women and advancing women, "what's left out are the issues of women of color," said Joan Reede, dean of diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School. "This intersectionality is important."

Observing that the audience participating in the forum wasn't racially diverse, Reede said that changing the outcomes for inclusiveness means opening "our eyes and [asking], 'Who's not here?'" The next questions need to be, "Why are the people here here? How did they find out about this? How did they get invited? What is the process that's being used to bring people in?"

"Bias doesn’t happen by accident," she observed. The process has to be examined to understand why a broader set of people aren't participating in the activity. They need to be invited not just to attend but to participate — as "speakers, planners, leaders," who can help "set the tone for what is happening."

Her challenge to people working to address STEM gaps is to "expand our vision so that when we're creating these images [of females as engineers and scientists], we're creating diverse images. When we're creating these programs, we understand the struggle is not just how I'm perceived as a woman, but as a black, Hispanic, whatever it may be."

An important aspect of that work is to make sure that students have the opportunity to see people who look like them — "not just white men and women," but people of color — so they can imagine, "I could do that. I could be you."

Give the Reins to the Frontline to Find Solutions

A front-line female engineer alerted tech vendor HubSpot that its hiring process of computer science graduates tended to favor those who talked about the "side hustle" during the interview process — those start-up ideas and web apps that many of their candidates slammed together in their spare time. However, indirectly, that direction tended to favor the male candidates, said Katie Burke, the company's chief people officer. Female candidates were just as focused on the academic part of the school work; but in their spare time they were doing athletics, or playing music. "They weren't hacking away on Friday nights at projects."

This employee partnered with a female recruiter to have the company host a "build-a-web-app workshop" weekend, "where women could build their first app so they'd have something to talk about — they'd have recent applicable experience to share."

Likewise, HubSpot handed the reins over to another frontline employee who was "super-passionate" about Wikipedia. As Burke explained, "Recognizing that visibility really matters, we empowered her to set up 'Add the Women Back' event." People all over the company were encouraged to learn more about a female engineer or entrepreneur and then to create a wiki page for Wikipedia that would celebrate her." Now, she said, the website has "hundreds of more entries from our employees and our leaders — including our male leaders."

"Sometimes the C-suite overcomplicates things, Burke added. "We've found much better progress by giving people the tools and creativity to take the issue head-on versus sitting in the C suite and wondering from the ivory tower how we're going to solve this."

Use Science to Figure It Out...

... In particular, social psychology. Katherine Newman, the incoming vice president for academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts, offered two findings from research that are helpful when it comes to getting others — whether girls or under-represented people of color — engaged in STEM.

First, set up a "vector of persistence." When you have a team of four people and only one member is a woman, the chance that she'll do well is less likely, let alone that she'll emerge as the leader of the team. "She stays quiet," Newman explained. However, when you add a second woman, that sets up the vector, and the "persistence of women jumps way up," said Newman. "That's true in the classroom, in research groups, and I would bet that’s true among children as well."

Second, find ways to reward people for revising their work. That will encourage a growth mindset, the belief that the brain is "mutable, changeable — it's about the effort." Then setbacks will be viewed not as the ending but the next beginning. Or, as the Girl Scouts' Harper put it, "You will either succeed or you will learn something."