On the heels of Math Awareness Month in April, we must continue to celebrate and acknowledge the importance of mathematics and students’ overall STEM aptitude. More specifically, we must also always encourage our female students in science, technology, engineering and math.
Such encouragement is critical to the future success of our female students, given the many STEM-related opportunities that are open to them in college and then career. According to a list from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, a number of career areas are expected to grow faster than many other occupations between now and 2031. These include:
- Data scientists, which will grow by 36%
- Mathematicians and statisticians, which will grow by 31%
- Logisticians, which will grow by 28%
With these opportunities and many others available today and in the years to come, we must first take the step of understanding how our female students feel about STEM subjects and pursuing potential careers in those areas.
Female students have STEM aptitude but aren’t pursuing it
Every student possesses natural talents, known as aptitudes. They are born with them, just like right- or left-handedness. These aptitudes, as reported by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, are solidified by age 14. Recent research has found that female middle and high school students, in particular, possess great natural talent in STEM-related subjects:
- Over 11-times the aptitude for advanced manufacturing careers than interest
- 8-times more aptitude for computers and technology careers than interest
- Nearly 3-times the aptitude for distribution and logistics careers than interest
- 2.4-times more aptitude for finance careers than interest
It is tremendous to see this substantial natural talent among our female students. However, despite this—and decades of cultural progression—troves of industry data have continually shown us that they are still not pursuing careers in these areas at higher rates. In fact, according to the National Science Board, women make up about one-third of the STEM workforce, less than their representation in the employed U.S. population (48%).
More specifically, women only accounted for 35% of physical scientists, 26% of computer and mathematical scientists, and 16% of engineers in 2019. One of the biggest reasons female students don’t go on to pursue college and career pathways in these areas is because of the career exposure gap.
Female students lack exposure to STEM
When looking at the aptitude female students possess in STEM-related areas, it is important to note the mention of interest. The gap between aptitude and interest is known as the exposure gap. This means that female students only identify with a few potential college majors and career options from the tens of thousands that are available—simply because they are not aware that certain careers exist.
The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation states, “Choosing a career based solely on interest can be an inefficient way to make a decision that impacts your entire life.” This is because interests change over time due to new life experiences and knowledge gained, meaning what may seem interesting to a 16- or 17-year-old student may not be of interest anymore to a 35-year-old working professional.
The impact of this exposure gap can be seen among recent female high school graduates. Only 41% reported that they felt prepared to declare a major or select a career upon high school graduation, compared to 57% of males. Additionally, almost 60% reported not being exposed to a wide enough variety of options for college and career compared to less than 30% of males who felt the same lack of exposure.
In order to help female students understand their true potential, find their best-fit path to education or career, and limit any uncertainty they may experience, we must expand their horizons as early as possible.
How to nurture interest in stem among female students
There are many steps districts, schools and educators can do to help female students understand their potential and full range of possibilities. These steps include:
- Discovering their natural talents: One of the first things we can do to best help prepare our female students for the future is empowering them to determine their natural talents. This can be accomplished through aptitude assessments, which measure a variety of abilities and can be initiated by teachers or guidance and career counselors. These are different from interest inventories that take account of personal interests at a given moment in time. While interest inventories have their place in education, they shouldn’t be the sole tool used to identify a student’s future path.
- Introducing all college major and career options: Once students’ natural talents are determined, guidance and career counselors can review their results and set up meetings with each student. This time should be used to help the students understand all of their options and pathways—from specific majors they can declare in college, trade schools they can attend, or careers they can enter into directly after high school—that best align with their natural talents. By offering students this information, they are better informed to make decisions about what classes they can take during their remaining years in high school that will prepare them for their path.
- Aligning talents to course options: Students have many high school course options, including core classes, electives and career and technical Education. With guidance from counselors and teachers, students can select classes that will help them cultivate their knowledge and skills directly related to their talents.
- Offering real-world experiences: After students have selected their courses, teachers and counselors can continue to reinforce their possibilities and expand their knowledge through real-world experiences. This can be done by having industry speakers—from organizations like New York-based Girls Who Code or Oregon-based STEM Like a Girl—come into the classroom or assemblies on a regular basis. They can also directly show students their college and career opportunities through interactive field trips to companies, laboratories, college campuses, trade schools, and more. In addition, counselors can work with local businesses to set up work-based learning through internships and apprenticeships.
- Encouraging extracurricular activities: Schools, in conjunction with teachers and counselors, should encourage the establishment of more clubs and extracurricular activities that align with college and career pathways. These groups—such as a Girls in Engineering club—can be a great way for students to be exposed to or share ideas and knowledge around the pathways they are pursuing.
- Connecting regularly: One of the most critical steps in nurturing interest in STEM is regular reinforcement and discussion. Female students should be encouraged to meet with their counselors and teachers on a regular basis throughout their middle school and high school careers. The more students are able to openly talk about their talents and their future options, the more likely they are to feel confident in pursuing them.