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Why Not?

Ten-year-old Abby wants to be an artist or a dancer when she grows up. Thirteen-year-olds Holly, Lindy and Page also know what they want to be: photographer, physician and “someone who works with people with special needs.”

Eight-year-old Melody doesn’t know yet; perhaps a softball player.

Compared to the eras when their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were growing up, girls today know early on that they can be anything they want to be, including women working in traditionally male-dominated careers.

Problem is, too few of them are choosing those high-end careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields known as STEM. Somewhere on the journey between verbalizing their aspirations and pursuing their career path, many girls get mixed signals. Or, worse, they are subtly or not so subtly made to understand that the STEM fields are not for them.

It’s not just that life gets in the way. And the fix is not as simple as thinking pink.

“In high school it was obvious that math was definitely for boys,” says 24-year-old Becca, who discovered her aptitude for numbers in college and went into a career in international business. “Nothing was ever said, but it was implied. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy that girls don’t ‘do’ math.”

Among the most recent national groups to study the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers is the Girl Scout Research Institute. Its 2012 report, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, notes that in the life sciences, chemistry and mathematics, women are better represented than they are in engineering, computer science and physics, where they account for only about 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees. Regardless of the STEM area, only about 25 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, according to the report.

“As opposed to the past stereotype that even girls who perform well academically are not interested in STEM (because it is a ‘boy thing’) our research demonstrates that interest among girls is there, it just needs to be primed,” the report says. “The challenge that remains is how to turn girls’ interest into action and make STEM the winner in the competition for girls’ attention when it comes to career choices.”

In 2010, a research report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) cited environmental and social barriers as the chief reasons for so few females in STEM fields. The report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, funded by the National Science Foundation, notes the importance of culture and learning environments in the cultivation of abilities and interests.

“To diversify the STEM fields we must take a hard look at the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our culture,” the report says. “Encouraging more girls and women to enter these vital fields will require careful attention to the environment in our classrooms and workplaces and throughout our culture.”

UMaine Today asked four University of Maine researchers to share their perspectives on why girls and women continue to be absent from this nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics equation. All four are involved in STEM-related initiatives on campus, and their work informs state and national dialog.

Girls aren’t broken and don’t need fixing

For decades, we’ve acknowledged that the United States must produce more STEM professionals to remain competitive in a global economy. Increasing the number of women in these fields shows the most promise in identifying untapped potential. To this end, a plethora of strategies and approaches have been put in place to attract women to these fields, with limited success. Although we’ve seen gains in some disciplines, most notably the life sciences, other fields such as physics and engineering have remained stagnant with only minimal gains. Computer science, arguably the most critical field of the 21st century, has actually seen a decrease in the participation of women.

We have persisted in strategies that intuitively seem effective, including exposing girls to careers in STEM and using mentors, based on the theory that by increasing the number of girls interested in STEM, the problem will be solved by waiting for girls to progress through the pipeline.

But experience shows us that women leave the STEM fields all along the pipeline. Even when they persist in their education/training and achieve professional credentials, many women still leave the field or go into sales or teaching. Indeed, many female engineers refer to engineering as their first career. Clearly, the pipeline is not solving the problem.

Additional challenges that have a detrimental effect on girls’ performance: the backlash against programs for girls that occurs as people identify problems with boys’ academic success, and research showing that there “might” be a gender difference in aptitude for different subjects. Boys are also struggling in an educational system that is outdated and unable to change with the speed required in today’s world.

We need to stop looking for quick remedies and we need to stop concentrating on how to “fix” the girls. Although we cannot neglect strategies and research about improving education in the STEM fields for girls and boys, other components are just as important. There is no single reason that girls persist in STEM less successfully than boys. It is a combination of interest, talent, socialization, support and opportunity that adds to the complexity of the problem. While we continue to identify new educational approaches, we must also look to ourselves and actively challenge our assumptions about why these dynamics exist. There isn’t a deliberate strategy to exclude girls. Rather, with all good intentions, we see what we are used to seeing.

As individuals, we need to do our own work. We need to continually educate ourselves about gender dynamics — both blatant and invisible, as it is accepted as “normal” in our culture — and we need to ask more questions rather than look for simple answers. If we understand our own internal biases and good intentions, we are better able to respond to both girls and boys as individuals, and offer support and challenge that benefit both.

We need to reframe the issue. We need to consider teacher preparation, become more culture-literate consumers, question our assumptions, recognize that girls are not the problem and understand that it is not as simple as getting them to love science. Girls have a natural curiosity and interest in the world that can be nurtured, but until we rethink our strict gender expectations, stop color-coding our children and their toys, and resist the urge to be complacent with the status quo so our children fit in and don’t suffer the pain of being different, progress will be slow, individuals will not fully meet their potential, and society will be constrained by a narrow selection process for some of our most critical fields.

Sharon Barker is the director of the UMaine Women’s Resource Center and collaborative lead for the Maine Girls Collaborative Project

Reengineering the future

My best friend Sue and I turned 14 in 1972, the year Title IX was enacted to ensure gender equity in educational programs receiving federal funding. Encouraged by our IBM fathers, we both became engineers and expected lots of girls to follow our lead. At first, we were right. The number of women who graduated as engineers jumped from 500 in 1972 to 8,300 in 1982. But growth slowed. Then, in 2002, it flattened to about 12,500 graduates. Today, college-bound women are well-prepared to study engineering, but only one in five engineering students is a woman. Without the directed parental encouragement we received, many young women reject the field, convinced that engineers are math and science whizzes like our IBM dads.

As states incorporate engineering outcomes into K–12 curricula, federal agencies and engineering societies are working to break through the stereotype so girls can see themselves as engineers. Biomedical engineer Jessica designs stents to repair clogged arteries. On the Engineer Your Life website, she describes how she loves her work that helps a patient live longer and enjoy a better quality of life. Also on that site, Katherine recalls how her 4-year-old brother’s life was saved by a helicopter ride to a hospital. She’s now a materials engineer designing helicopter parts.

Girls are more likely to consider engineering careers when they hear women engineers telling how their work makes a difference, and how their jobs are enjoyable and in good working environments, offering good salaries and flexibility. The website Changing the Conversation by the National Academy of Engineering posts outreach examples engineering educators can use to appeal to young women, and highlights audience-tested messages, such as “Engineers make a world of difference.”

STEM educators can use free online surveys developed by the Assessing Women and Men in Engineering Project to determine if their programs are reaching youths. Engaged schools and universities are applying these well-researched tools.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office reported that federal granting agencies needed to do more to ensure compliance with Title IX. The NASA Title IX & STEM self-evaluation guide makes clear that outreach is critical to the university admissions process, and asks universities receiving NASA funds to evaluate whether their outreach messages attract young women. Title IX reviews can encourage engineering programs to improve their recruitment to reach girls and women.

The U.S. needs to kick-start new growth in the number of women pursuing engineering degrees. We can begin by reframing engineering education and outreach so more young women believe engineering is a career for them. NASA’s Title IX & STEM guidelines suggest we have a legal obligation to do so.

Karen Horton is a UMaine associate professor of mechanical engineering technology and past chair of the Government Relations and Public Policy Committee of the Society of Women Engineers

Decoding the mixed messages

As a young girl, I had three clear choices about what I could be when I grew up — a mom, secretary or teacher. Early on, I ruled out a career as a nurse because, despite being a top student in elementary school, I believed I was “not good” in math or science. Luckily, things have changed for girls. Now girls are told they can be anything they want to be. Certainly, this is the message I gave to my daughters when they were young. Why, then, are more girls not choosing to pursue careers in science, engineering, technology and mathematics?

Girls receive many conflicting messages about what it means to be a girl in our society. Many of these messages contradict the messages I gave to my daughters. The most pervasive contradictions can be found in media.

Open a magazine or watch television with an eye toward how girls and women are portrayed. You’ll see a multitude of images, words and storylines that scream that girls and women are valued for their appearance and sexuality, and life revolves around boys and men. Some advertisements and television shows may even be premised on “girl power,” but upon closer examination, you will likely find that girl power has been redefined.

My colleague Lyn Mikel Brown demonstrates in her book, Packaging Girlhood, that girl power has been co-opted by marketers. Yes, girls still have power, but now they have the power to shop, fight with each other and decide if they will be a girly girl or a guy’s girl.

If you need more evidence of the limited options offered to girls, go to a toy store. How long does it take you to figure out which aisle is for boys and for girls, and which one has the more interesting and creative toys? Check out the LEGO section. LEGO now has reinvented sets for girls. In the new pastel LEGOs, girls can build beauty shops, hot tubs and cafés. The LEGO figurines have waists and breasts.

How is a girl supposed to reconcile these messages with the message that she can be anything? Certainly not on her own. Girls need adults who can help them understand that they are more complex, smarter and powerful than portrayed by the media and marketers. Here are some ways you can support a girl you care about to broaden her range of possibilities, including what it might be like to be a scientist, computer programmer, engineer or mathematician:

Rather than lament about girls not pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, take action to help girls in your life broaden their world of possibilities. Who knows? She might be the next Sally Ride.

Mary Madden is the director of UMaine’s ADVANCE Rising Tide Center and an associate research professor of education

Changing the culture

When I decided to major in physics in the early 1970s, I had no idea that so few women would be joining me to study and work in this field. At that time, I was an undergraduate at Princeton, and it was not unusual to be the only woman in a class, since the university had only recently begun admitting female students. I envisioned that women would move relatively quickly into the field, just as they had done in law and medicine. I assumed that others would be attracted by the creativity, the excitement of solving challenging, important problems, and the fun of building equipment to design and conduct experiments. Throughout my career and now as a professor of physics at the University of Maine, I have continued to enjoy these kinds of work opportunities.

Looking at current statistics, though, only approximately 20 percent of physics undergraduate degrees in 2010 were awarded to women, and 8 percent of full professors in physics are women. Why has this situation persisted in physics and many of the engineering disciplines, when women have readily moved into other professions that are also viewed as challenging and require many years of study? In an era in which we have a national need for additional workers in engineering and the physical sciences, why have we not seen more women entering these fields?

These questions and others have led me more recently to focus on challenges in STEM education: What does research tell us about how to prepare students for careers in STEM disciplines and how should we teach in ways that attract more students, especially those currently underrepresented, into these fields? These types of questions motivated me to lead the formation of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education 10 years ago and to pursue, with colleagues around the state, funding for the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership.

In considering the shortage of women and girls in many STEM disciplines, two common myths need debunking:

Myth #1: We just need to figure out the one thing that should be done to change this situation. So often people say, “If we could just keep girls interested in mathematics and science in middle school”; or “If we just had more women role models”; or “If girls only studied more mathematics.” In fact, the underrepresentation of women in particular disciplines arises from many factors. The causes of underrepresentation are multifaceted and the solutions that work will be as well.

Myth #2: Time is fixing this problem. If we continue to wait, the next generation of girls will pursue these disciplines as commonly as boys, in spite of the lack of women already in them. Statistics don’t support this view. In the last three decades (1981–2010), the percentage of physics bachelor’s degrees earned by women has only risen from about 12 percent to 21 percent — a decline of a few percentage points from the maximum reached in 2000. In 39 percent of Ph.D.-granting physics departments, there are either no women faculty or only one woman on the faculty (2006 data).

These myths suggest some important avenues to pursue to move toward the cultural changes needed to bring more women into physics, engineering and other disciplines in which their talents are needed. First, the community needs to recognize that this problem requires a collaborative, thoughtful and comprehensive approach. The Maine Girls Collaborative takes an important step in bringing leaders, both women and men, together to build this approach in K–12. This type of work needs to be expanded into postsecondary institutions and workplaces.

Changing the culture and providing support and opportunities for girls and women in these disciplines must be a long-standing and immediate priority. We cannot wait for this type of change to happen on its own. Work toward this end must be valued, incentivized and rewarded in our institutions. In tough economic times, it is natural to focus professional energy to meet mainstream measures of productivity, neglecting underrepresentation and diversity. Ongoing awareness and research-guided actions are both essential to change this situation.

Susan McKay is a UMaine professor of physics and the founding director of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center) on campus

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