14 Mar Building Girls’ Confidence to Pursue STEM
The importance of encouraging more girls and women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has been an increasingly salient discussion within recent years. A simple Google search of “women in STEM” yields nearly a quarter of a million results, most of which highlight the gender disparity in these fields. The majority of these discussions seek to understand why women are so woefully underrepresented in STEM, often through statistical insights or anecdotal evidence.
One may ponder this question and arrive at a number of seemingly reasonable conclusions as to why there are fewer women in STEM. Is it due to deeply ingrained stereotypes about women that both sexes may believe to be true? Are there too few female STEM role models for little girls and women to look up to? Has popular culture failed to represent women in STEM in realistic and appealing ways? These are but a few of the many points of entry where one may begin their journey to thoughtfully consider why and how it is that women make up the majority of university graduates in Canada, yet represent the minority in STEM.
Because March is National Engineering Month in Canada, and today is Science Education Day, we felt it was the perfect opportunity to explore this issue. In particular, we are interested in looking at the possible role that confidence may play in women opting not to pursue STEM. We came across two statistics that inspired us:
- “Young women with higher mathematics marks in high school (at least 90% in grade 9 or 10) were less likely to opt for a STEM university program than men with marks in the 80% to 89% range.”
- “With respect to their mathematical ability, young men typically had a better opinion of themselves as 50% perceived their ability to be “very good” or excellent”, compared with 37% of young women…..Among youth who attended university and perceived their mathematics skills to be good, 36% of males opted for a STEM program, compared with 15% of females. Furthermore, 66% of males who perceived their skills to be excellent chose a STEM program, compared with 47% of females.”
(The above insights were gathered from “Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university” by Darcy Hango.)
Taken together, the above statistics piqued our curiosity. Why is it that women do not perceive their mathematical abilities as confidently as their male counterparts? Further, why is that women with strong math skills opt not to utilize them by pursuing STEM? While we can’t entirely unpack these complex questions with a single blog post, we hope to help stimulate important dialogue surrounding them.
Vanessa Vakharia, founder of TheMathGuru.ca, underscored girls’ tendency to doubt their own mathematical abilities with this quote to the Huffington Post: “A lot of studies have shown that girls as early as age six start developing the idea that they’re not inherently good at math.”
So what are some ways that parents and educators can help support young girls in ways that may help build their confidence to pursue STEM education and careers? Here are a few examples:
- No matter the child’s interests, encourage her to consider aspects of it in unique ways that prompt her to consider how things function (e.g., “The yellow in the corner of your painting is so pretty!” versus “What colour might we get if we mix yellow and blue paint together?”)
- Encourage participation in STEM camps, competitions, events, and groups
- Show her examples of real fearless, intelligent women who have made important contributions within the world STEM
- Support her curiosity; demonstrate your own
- Expose her to diverse toys and books that enable her to think and imagine in a variety of ways, on a variety of topics
There are many tactics one can employ to foster an environment of imagination and critical thought among young girls. While self-assuredness is one factor in the matrix of what informs a girl’s decision to pursue a certain educational or professional path, ultimately, the goal is to positively contribute to a healthy sense of confidence early on so the women of tomorrow feel empowered to pursue their dreams – regardless of whether it is in a STEM field or not.