Addressing STEM stereotypes on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Established by the United Nations (UN), the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a momentous occasion that sheds light on the need for gender equity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Despite the undeniable strides made in recent years, there remains a significant gender gap in these careers. Since a key aspect of Developing Experts’ mission is to promote diverse STEM careers for all, we recognise the importance of exploring ways to address these disparities.
Gender stereotypes in STEM begin earlier than you think
Did you know that by the age of 6, girls ‘begin to avoid’ activities that they think are reserved for individuals who are ‘very, very smart’? Over the past few decades, researchers have been exploring why girls’ participation in STEM subjects is infused with such bias, suggesting that social factors, learning styles, family dynamics and general societal interactions are all important and begin to set in during early childhood. Since there are so many factors at play - including what girls read or watch in the media, what they observe in their family and friends and how they participate in science at school - assessing how to tackle this bias can be difficult.
The ‘leaky pipeline’
These childhood stereotypes continue into secondary and tertiary education; recent research shows that the chance of studying a STEM subject at university is about 60% higher for men than it is for women, and only 26% of STEM university graduates are women. This gradual reduction of the presence and interest of girls and women in STEM has been named the ‘leaky pipeline’, a phrase which helpfully illustrates the manner in which female students slowly filter away from a science-oriented career path. Again, there are various reasons for this trend, some of which concern identity. Typically, within the media and society in general, STEM careers are represented as ‘generally masculine’, a label which understandably adds to the lack of female participation in these fields. This is important as it suggests that being a scientist carries a certain identity that isn’t attainable or even desirable for a large portion of the population.
Why is gender equity important?
Helping more women and girls become capable, successful scientists could deliver astonishing results. Firstly, the UN has reported that ‘gender partity is essential for the development of more sustainable economies’, whilst in the UK, politicians have suggested that an increased number of women in STEM fields will result in boosted economic health. However, economics aside, helping to re-define and re-form identity criteria to enable girls to see themselves as confident, knowledgeable and proficient science scholars could result in huge educational changes - and it all starts in the classroom.
What activities can I do in my classroom?
Celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is not just about acknowledging the disparities but actively working to eliminate them. By understanding the historical context and leveraging educational strategies, we can empower the next generation of women in STEM and create a more inclusive and diverse scientific community.