In 2011, when addressing the lack of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama said:
If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
By leveraging the creative energies of women, who serve as an untapped, valuable resource across all industries, companies will receive a surplus of benefits, ranging from fresh perspectives to problem-solving from female participants, a wider talent pool, and increased diversity of ideas. So, what needs to change to bridge the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers from this generation of women? Below are five steps that must be taken to empower women in STEM:
- Revamping the K-12 curriculum. As subjects within math and science depend heavily on prior learning to determine future understanding, schools should provide a focused, aligned, and clear-cut curriculum to facilitate learning in these subjects. Schools should stress the depth – as opposed to breadth – of learning. It is only through comprehensive understanding of conceptual knowledge that students can master these subjects. Math and science programs should emphasize “hands-on” experiential learning, rather than studying by rote, in order to capitalize on students’ interests and experiences. Accelerated courses should be offered if possible, so as to prepare girls for the introductory science classes offered at university.
- Developing programs that will pique girls’ interests in science and technology. Be it dynamic summer internships in technology start up companies, a Chemistry lab camp that encompasses the study of food Chemistry and forensics, or a science fair that features cutting-edge research ideas, girls need to know that science entails so much more than dry theory, and can be exciting and novel.
- Introducing girls to women leaders in STEM. These women in STEM – ranging from engineers to CEOs of technological companies to researchers in university laboratories – should impart their knowledge and expertise to girls who aspire to work in STEM and STEM-related fields, so that they know more about the rigors, intellectual stimulation and job prospects attached to STEM fields. Middle and high schools should invite women leaders to talk about their professions and shed light on the career prospects in STEM, so that girls can make informed decisions about their future careers.
- Combating stereotypes. In order to fully eradicate this underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, we must make sure that women and men don’t grow up in a society in which they digest images of scientists as boringly studious male misfits and absorb fallacies about the roles of men and women in science. Girls need to know that women have been the linchpins of many scientific projects throughout history; women discovered radium and polonium, proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, worked on the Manhattan Project, advanced the techniques of X-ray crystallography, and contributed to our understanding of ribosomes and DNA.
- Letting girls know that they matter. A simple word of encouragement, whether from a parent, peer or a teacher, is crucial to empowering women who are determined to overcome the hurdles that militate against their decision to pursue a career in STEM. The two simple words “you matter”, when said clearly and honestly, are essential to dispelling the deep-seated insecurities girls harbor about their futures. Only when girls know that they are an integral reservoir of talent, replete with value and potential to contribute to our society, can they, armed with newfound confidence in themselves, channel their creative energies into avenues of innovation in the fascinating nexus of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.