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The Unpopular Girl in the Classroom: How to Empower Female Students in STEM

If you walk into any STEM classroom on a college campus, you may notice that the male students in the room vastly outnumber the females. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, as STEM subjects are significantly less popular with girls than the humanities and social sciences. We can trace this pattern back to the imposition of gender roles in childhood. Female children are encouraged to interact with toys that reinforce a preexisting maternal instinct, such as dolls. Young girls are expected to develop their skills as caretakers and homemakers through gendered playthings, which diminishes their growing scientific and mathematical skills. While the abilities to care and nurture are incredibly important, we should be normalizing girls’ aspirations to pursue opportunities beyond domestic labor.

Here are tips I recommend that will foster stronger analytical and quantitative skills in female students:

Introducing students to the sciences early

Women make up less than a third of the overall STEM workforce, and a little over a third of female students majored in a STEM-related field in 2016. Females continue to lag behind in many scientific fields at the higher education level, including biomedical, physics, and chemistry. Parents play an essential role in exposing their children to a wide variety of interests. To increase their children’s well-roundedness, they can create a more scientific and mathematical play environment by purchasing science kits, puzzles, and arithmetic toys. 

At the middle school level, a common trend is the creation of “Girls Who Code” clubs. In these clubs, girls learn to hone their coding and computer programming skills. Groups like these are integral for creating a safe space for female students who share similar interests and may feel intimidated in a male-dominated subject.

Provide incentives for majoring in STEM

Most of the time, female students will enroll in only the introductory courses needed to meet their STEM requirements in high school and college. However, educators have a duty to their students to empower them by showing them the importance of diverse women in the STEM field. There is a common misconception that women in STEM only become doctors or engineers, but it should be emphasized that the STEM field has a wide diversity of jobs.

For graduating high school seniors who plan to major in STEM, I recommend searching for scholarships for female STEM students because the demographic is so narrow. Many colleges and universities provide these types of incentives for rising college freshmen and undergrads. Still, more of these programs should be implemented to increase the field’s appeal and remove financial obstacles from girls who want to become STEM majors.

Highlight the achievements of women in STEM

I am a firm believer in representation, and seeing strong women in STEM can make students think, “Hey, I can do this too!” We should celebrate female achievements in STEM. An excellent way to start is by celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Historically, there have been so many women who have contributed to the STEM field, but their narratives have been dismissed and ignored because of their gender, race, or both. 

Breaking Down Barriers

I am especially inspired by the stories of empowered women told through film, like the rise of three female African American scientists in the movie Hidden Figures. Telling the story of Katharine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan during their time working for NASA as “human computers,” the movie showcases their struggle to overcome racial and gender barriers. These women made monumental strides while working at the Langley Research Division of the now-defunct National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan emerged out of the formerly segregated West Area Computer Division to become the first black scientist, engineer, and supervisor at NASA, respectively. Their abilities were downplayed because of their role in society as black women, but their determination, resilience, and assertiveness proved to their colleagues that they were invaluable members of the team. Narratives like those told in Hidden Figures have been dismissed historically for so long, but when we raise awareness of their experiences and perspectives, we lay the foundation for supporting future women leaders in STEM.

Empowering future leaders

While women were once denied suffrage, they are now removing inequality barriers at a staggering speed and making substantial advancements in the STEM field. Just as the nation has lagged behind in giving them the vote and combatting sexist job discrimination, we could certainly be doing more to close the achievement gap between boys and girls in STEM. Let us carry on the fight for female education and let women write their own narratives of success.

Angel N. Skinner
Contributor at The Commoner | + posts

Angel N. Skinner has 12 years of teaching experience and has taught at different community colleges in the state of Mississippi. She also taught ESL for Chinese students and achieved a Certified TESOL. I have a strong interest in education, research, and English. My hobbies are reading, writing, and singing.

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