Why STEM’s Future Rests In The Hands Of 12-Year-Old Girls

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) took a comprehensive look at gender differences in student performance based on an exam taken by 15-year-olds.

The report found that, although girls often perform better than their male peers — staying in school longer and out-performing them in reading — the top-performing girls continue to lag behind top-performing boys in math and science. The survey report explores possible reasons behind this gap: Importantly, girls report having lower levels of confidence in their math abilities and experience higher levels of anxiety when performing math-related tasks than boys.

A higher percentage of girls agreed with statements such as “I get very nervous doing mathematics problems,” and “I worry that I will get poor marks in mathematics.” This suggests that girls’ low level of confidence in their math and science abilities could impact their performance in school and, ultimately, result in their underrepresentation in STEM jobs.

When does this anxiety set in for girls? A recent Verizon ad video highlights the subtle but powerful statements that girls hear throughout their childhood that discourage them from pursuing studies in STEM. Some studies have shown that, beginning at age 12, girls begin to like math and science less, expect not to do as well in these subjects and attribute their failures to lack of ability.

Results from tests conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the gaps between girls and boys in science and math grow larger over time, with the largest shift in girls’ versus boys’ scores occurring between the ages of 9 and 10 years old.

Similarly, other standardized achievement tests conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found that, while there were no differences between boys and girls in fourth grade on mathematics and science tests, the girls continued to lose ground after fourth grade and throughout high school on exams testing mathematical and science ability.

These findings among 9- to 12-year-old girls have longer-term effects and, by high school, girls self-select out of higher-level math and science courses, such as chemistry, physics and calculus, thus reducing their chances to pursue STEM majors in college and pursue STEM-related careers. I can attest to this first-hand, as I was one of the few women in my high school to take advanced science and math courses, including AP Calculus, AP Physics and AP Chemistry.

How do we empower elementary school girls to embrace an interest in STEM?

The question is, to prevent this deterioration in scores and perceived ability, how do we empower elementary school girls to embrace an interest in STEM and develop leadership skills that will help them navigate their way through school to be prepared to choose any career, including STEM? How can educators address the main factors at this critical 9- to 12-year-old window that are standing in the way of more girls going into STEM fields?

We need to address the three main causes that prevent girls from entering into STEM fields:

Make the connection. Neuropsychiatry studies show that girls are inclined toward subjects and activities that involve communication and connection-making, and therefore often reject STEM-related careers that they view as individual contributor roles, with little interaction and teamwork.

However, STEM employers are, in fact looking for employees who also have the “soft skills” where women typically excel — including the ability to network, effectively communicate and work in teams. Girls need positive women engineer role models who can articulate that STEM-related careers allow for communication and connection-making; for example, explain the importance of mentorship, how their work helps the community and the environment and how they apply leadership.

By highlighting that women have been excelling in the soft skills also needed for STEM jobs, we can help prevent girls from being discouraged from pursuing the technical skills also needed to succeed.

Change the mindset around leadership. Beliefs that girls hold about their own potential is critical when they are choosing to opt in or out of STEM subjects in school and STEM careers. Students with a “growth mindset” (versus a fixed mindset) are often the highest achievers.

Stanford professor Jo Boaler describes the research evidence showing that when children develop a “growth mindset,” they believe that intelligence can be learned and grown from exercise — and therefore adopt thought patterns such as believing that effort is important: embracing challenges, pushing through setbacks, using feedback to improve and being inspired by and learning from others.

However, too many of our current practices in education are based on notions about fixed ability of students’ potential. Mindset messages can be communicated through the classroom, and we need to equip girls with this mindset, as well as leadership skills, in elementary school in order to better prepare them for middle and high school.

STEM jobs are growing at a faster rate and have lower levels of unemployment than other occupations.

The San Francisco-based group Technovation is actively tackling this issue be exposing girls not only to the various creative possibilities within STEM, but to entrepreneurially thinking and skill sets, challenging teams to develop mobile app “startups” to solve real problems within their communities.

Exposure to practical uses of STEM. Girls’ view of mathematics as boring, complicated or hard plays a significant role in students’ decisions to opt out of pursuing STEM fields. Exposure to the practicality of the subject matter shows girls how math can be interesting, uncomplicated and within their reach.

Educators can do more to address this issue in class by showing girls how innovative high-tech companies and other careers in STEM apply the math concepts the girls learn in school. After-school programs can help fill the gap, as well. Kids’ Vision, a Bay Area nonprofit designed to empower girls by increasing their interest and knowledge in STEM, is helping girls develop attitudes early, before they view themselves as having limited ability.

Kids’ Vision operates as an after-school program, bringing 3rd to 6th grade girls in Silicon Valley to technology companies and providing women engineer role models that demonstrate how STEM subjects can be applied in their careers.

Bringing our young girls into the future STEM workforce is not just about gender equality — it’s also about building a strong U.S. economy and tapping into a potentially huge source of undeveloped, world-class talent. Future women engineers, scientists and mathematicians will create new ideas, products and technologies in the 21st century, and lead new businesses, industries and policy making.

Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. STEM workers are crucial drivers of long-term, sustainable economic growth. And STEM-educated employees are in high demand: STEM jobs are growing at a faster rate and have lower levels of unemployment than other occupations.

STEM is a win-win for women and the economy.

Second, wages in STEM jobs are higher than those in non-STEM jobs, with women in STEM earning 20 percent more in STEM jobs than other college-educated women, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. A report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that the median annual wage of all occupations in the U.S. was $34,570 per employee, while median annual wage was $76,270 among STEM professionals, and $102,190 for computer scientists. STEM is a win-win for women and the economy.

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement is a great start — highlighting the diversity of what an engineer can look like and providing a voice to professional women who have faced discrimination and harassment in their careers, as is the work of groups like Technovation and Kid’s Vision, exposing young students to the practical and creative applications of STEM.

To promote more women in STEM in future generations — both as a human rights and equal opportunity issue and one crucial to the U.S. economy and global standing — we need to do more to change the trajectory for our girls.