Closing the STEM Gender Gap in K-12 Education: How Teachers Can Help

Learning, PreK-12

It is, unfortunately, no surprise that the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) still exists – from primary school right up through STEM-related careers. Recent reports (call attention, once again, to the statistics: women earn disproportionately fewer STEM undergraduate degrees; women hold nearly 50% of all jobs in the US, but less than 25% of the STEM jobs; women with STEM degrees are more likely to work in education or healthcare than their male counterparts. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measured science proficiency in eighth grade students and found no significant change in the gender gap over the previous assessment, although average scores for both male and female students increased.

Many studies, articles, and expert opinions point to the same issues that perpetuate the gender gap in STEM: a lack of female STEM role models, deeply ingrained cultural biases and gender stereotypes, pop-culture portrayals and societal attitudes, female discomfort in male-dominated classes and a general lack of encouragement and support for girls in STEM fields. Additionally, inflexible and un-family-friendly academic systems and careers deter women, creating a vicious cycle.

The good news is that teachers can play a huge role in helping to decrease the STEM gender gap. Erik Robelen, writing in Education Week last year , (noted, “Long before women pick a college major or enter the workforce, their K-12 education sets the stage in level of interest, confidence, and achievement in STEM.” More recently, Forbes suggested reworking K-12 curriculum to cultivate interest in science and technology early and to encourage girls by offering more hands-on workshops and bringing female engineers to talk to students. What can teachers do? Some ideas pulled from the on-going discussion include:

  • Raise girls’ awareness of STEM occupations. Students can’t aspire to careers they don’t know exist. Introduce them to careers from astrophysicist to zoologist.
  • Help girls find relevancy in STEM – show them how a specific STEM field or career allow them to do something that they’re interested in, whether that’s saving dolphins or designing high-efficiency wind turbines
    • Give girls the personal encouragement and supportive environment they need to pursue and succeed in STEM. Keep in mind that girls may feel less comfortable in a classroom dominated by boys.
    • Be aware that girls (and female teachers) may feel less confident of their abilities to use new technology (check out this post for more information:)
    • Be aware of overt biases against girls – and be especially alert for unintended biases against girls. For example, this study found that teachers can unintentionally pass on the stereotype that boys are better at math than girls in their evaluations of their students. Notice how often you call on girls in STEM-related classes and assign roles in group projects carefully.
    • Introduce girls to computing, including and especially “the creative aspects of algorithm and software design, or to the transformational effect that computing can have across a wide range of disciplines,” notes this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
    • Make use of the variety of resources available to help students in general and girls in particular. Check out 40 great resources here.

Last, it would be irresponsible to tell girls that they can be anything and do anything without warning them of the real difficulties they may face down the road – not that the math will be hard or boring, but of the challenges of an inflexible academic system and career paths that may not have changed for the better by the time today’s primary school girls reach them. By high school, girls should be aware that they may need to work twice as hard for a position among their male peers in a male-dominated field. Girls of all ages should be encouraged not just to pursue STEM fields, but to be persistent, resilient, and overcome challenges.

Winifred Kehl

Winifred Kehl

Winifred Kehl is a science communicator and museum exhibit designer in Seattle, WA. She is particularly interested in public engagement with science, accessibility and inclusion, and creative educational projects. You can find her online at www.winifredkehl.com.