As the technology industry continues to grow, many look to the pioneers of Silicon Valley as role models for their own career aspirations – moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are revered as some of the greatest minds of our time. But where are our female role models?
Women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. This significant gap leaves untapped talent for STEM employment, and makes it harder to close the gender wage gap – students who major in STEM earn almost 25 percent more than students who choose non-STEM majors. In addition, women make up half of the consumer market, but they are underrepresented in the development of products. All of this has left many wondering how we can get more women involved in STEM.
The solution is to start STEM education early. Studies have shown that starting STEM education in elementary school makes students more interested in the subjects throughout their schooling. Building a strong STEM foundation in elementary school also equips students with the confidence that they can succeed in classes that their peers may be afraid to try later in their academic career. By giving girls equal opportunities to develop an interest in STEM at a young age, we can lay the foundation they need to pursue STEM careers.
Integrating a wide variety of STEM lessons into K – 8 curriculums, ranging from robotics and coding to creating websites and short films, is an effective way to appeal to children's unique interests. Stoking girls' interest in STEM outside the classroom can help develop a lasting passion for the activities. At St. Thomas School, our after-school STEM clubs take a deeper dive into topics introduced in the classroom like robotics, as well as introduce new technologies like drones. Most importantly, participants in our STEM clubs choose their projects, and the technology they want focus on. By differentiating based on interest, eventually all children – boys and girls – find something that resonates with them. As a result, our after-school STEM clubs have equal parts male and female participants.
For example, Brooke, a sixth grader at St. Thomas School, started attending coding club in first grade and quickly developed a passion for the subject. She is now a mentor for other students in the club and wants to pursue a career in cyber security. By being exposed to coding early, Brooke was able to develop her skills and build her confidence so now she feels comfortable teaching her male and female peers how to develop their skills.
It's important to instill confidence in young students so they feel empowered to continue pursuing STEM fields later in life. At St. Thomas School we encourage our students to refer to themselves as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians so they know they have what it takes to hold these positions. By saying "I am an engineer," a child starts to feel that they really are an engineer and, with enough encouragement, that feeling sticks with them as they grow older.
Using female scientists and engineers as examples while teaching can also help inspire young girls by showing them that women have careers in STEM too. For example, a number of Facebook's features, such as the news feed and photo viewer, were developed by female engineers. If more girls knew this, they might aspire to be engineers at Facebook someday too. To take this a step further, educators can bring in female engineers as guest speakers to talk about their profession and serve as mentors and role models for young girls.
We cannot close the gender gap in STEM overnight, but by helping our children develop a strong STEM foundation and sense of confidence at an early age, we can empower all children equally to tap into their true potential.