Girls & STEM: Overcoming the Hurdles

Research shows that girls start to lose interest in math and science when they hit middle school. But why is that? And what can we, as parents, do to encourage our girls to continue pursuing their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) interests?

Part of the problem seems to be the prevalent stereotypes that girls either don’t like or aren’t good enough at STEM. The Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI) found that girls do like it and the American Association of University Women has found that high school girls and boys perform equally in STEM fields. While the stereotypes just aren’t true, they still serve as an obstacle to girls who may have considered pursuing math and science.

Compounding the stereotype is the fact that girls have few women in STEM to look to as role models. While the names of many male scientists are recognizable, there are far fewer widely recognized women in STEM that girls can relate to. This may be part of the reason girls shy away from math and the sciences. Almost half of the girls the GSRI studied said they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or class.

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So how can parents help their daughters push past these obstacles? Here are some ideas:

Expose Girls to STEM Programs

Expose girls to STEM opportunities in the community and encourage them to participate.

There are tons of LEGO and Minecraft clubs out there that encourage a love of STEM in our kids. However, in many of them, you may find an imbalanced girl-boy ratio. If your daughter is not deterred by that, more power to her! But if you have a daughter who would feel uncomfortable, you might want to consider one of the many girls-only STEM opportunities that are cropping up.

There are a lot of organizations in the NY metro area that are offering girls opportunities in STEM fields. Girls Inc. has chapters in Westchester, Long Island, and New York City that provide girls-only programs in a variety of different areas, including STEM. Many local colleges and museums, including NYU, The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History, offer programs specifically for girls. The American Association of University Women Westchester branch has also started a program called WizGirls, which gives 4th-7th grade girls who attend NYC or Westchester County schools the opportunity to explore technology and engineering through hands-on activities. Another great resource to find activities in your area is the New York STEAM Girls Collaborative.

Make STEM Fun at Home

If you’d like to encourage your daughter’s exploration of STEM at home, there are so many ways to do it. GoldieBlox and LEGO are a great way to start. There are also a bunch of monthly subscription science boxes geared specifically towards girls: StemBox, Yellow Scope, and blink blink are just a few.

Exploring girl-focused STEM websites like Engineer Girl, Black Girls Code, Made with Code, Girls Who Code, and Pretty Brainy is another great idea. These sites are specifically designed to be attractive to girls, with feminine design and plenty of photos of girls and women at work.

While part of me is a little leery of gender-specific marketing (especially to the extent it reinforces gender stereotypes), another part of me can’t be mad at attempts to find innovative ways to push girls toward trying something they might otherwise have viewed as “for boys.” If we can make girls feel like a comfortable part of the scientific community rather than outsiders, why not use it to grab their interest?

Expect Girls to Succeed at STEM

This might be the most important piece of the puzzle. We need to leave our daughters with no doubt that they can succeed in STEM fields if they would like to. Joking about girls being bad at math and science or expecting them to do worse than their male peers is not as innocent as some people think. Our girls will take these things, internalize them, and assume they’re just not good enough. By showing our unwavering support and confidence in them, we can set them up to succeed.

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Helping our daughters navigate their way past gender stereotypes is part of our job description as parents. Girls have a much easier time growing into driven, confident women when they come from encouraging families that push them to do their best. Studies show this might be especially true for girls in STEM fields. Let’s promise ourselves—and our daughters—that we’ll give them the support that they need to do anything that interests them.