The importance of closing the STEM gender gap

by Amanda Nathuji | November 27, 2018

Frances Arnold, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in the use of directed evolution to engineer enzymes. Directed evolution refers to engineering biomolecules to perform specific biological functions, as opposed to them evolving on their own to perform those functions. Left to their own devices, enzymes can take hundreds or thousands of years to naturally evolve (mutate) to perform functions that would be very useful to scientists today. Dr. Arnold forces these mutations by introducing the mutations into the protein sequence, then tests the protein to check if the function has been improved. This type of research has far-reaching implications, including the production of renewable fuels and pharmaceuticals that are less harmful to the environment.

Dr. Arnold’s work has certainly proven that she has earned a place among her honored fellows. Of the 180 Nobel prizes in chemistry that have been awarded since 1901, only five of those have been awarded to a female. That is less than 3% of the total. While some may be discouraged by that small number, I would encourage us all to view it as a challenge.

We are all aware that females are underrepresented in a number of scientific fields, such as computer engineering and physics. But why should this matter? After all, there are plenty of industries dominated by females. It matters because the next Nobel laureate in chemistry or physics could be your daughter, or mine. With the proper encouragement and opportunity, anything is possible. More practically speaking, even if our daughters never achieve Nobel-level prestige, it has been proven that a degree in a STEM-related field means more higher-paying employment opportunities in the future. In general, as STEM fields are a high-growth sector of the industry, being a highly skilled member of this set offers more job opportunities, period.

As a society, we tend to encourage boys to pursue knowledge related to math and science while steering girls toward liberal arts degrees. It’s a commonly accepted “truth” that males simply have more aptitude for higher math (which is often applied in science fields like physics, chemistry, and engineering). Sadly, this stereotype is frequently applied to children as young as preschool. But it’s been proven repeatedly that girls aren’t less capable at applying math concepts than their male counterparts. Society ingrains in them at an early age that they aren’t as capable. They internalize this perceived incompetence, and that perception quietly grows within until girls convince themselves that they are bad at math, and often as an extension, at science. Typically around middle school, many girls stop trying to excel at math and science with the excuse that they are just not good at it. While they are partially responsible for that defeatist mindset, we as a society need to own our role as well for perpetuating these myths for so long and passing them down to successive generations.

As parents, it is imperative that we abolish these perceptions. If we don’t actively demonstrate our belief in our daughter’s ability to succeed in math-based STEM fields, how can she grow up to believe in herself? We are the voice she hears in her head when she struggles with a new topic, at least until she develops a voice of her own. Will she hear encouraging words that will fortify her with a positive attitude that will enable her to forge ahead?

At STEMed Labs, we often talk about providing our students with the proper tools to be agents of change. In order to be the leaders of tomorrow, young students need to start simple. Below are some suggestions for how to begin the process of creating a positive, lifelong learning-focused mindset, whether your child is male or female.

  1. Create opportunities for STEM-related activities. Whether it is attending a class, visiting a museum, listening to lecture on a favorite topic, watching a fascinating docuseries, building something just for fun, or speaking with a professional in a STEM field, create opportunities for your student to gain wide-ranging exposure to math and science.

  2. Encourage questions. It can be difficult to answer the 100th question of the day. Our time is limited, and kids are so curious! But if we take their questions seriously, they will continue asking them, as they should. In fact, a fundamental aspect of being a scientist is the ability to ask questions and pursue answers. What happens when you don’t know the answer? It’s completely acceptable to say, “I don’t know.” But you should always follow up with, “Let’s find out together.” Then it becomes a learning opportunity for both of you!

  3. Read, read, read. Take as many trips as you can to the library for non-fiction books. While it’s fantastic for kids to read fiction, too, make sure they come home with at least two non-fiction books on every trip. Also, demonstrate the importance of continued education by reading non-fiction material yourself. Kids often emulate the behavior they see, so be the example they need. Discuss what you’re reading with your kids!

  4. Make their interests hands-on, including open-ended engineering activities. With all the engineering kit choices available today, it’s easy to gift one to a child who loves to build. The benefit to these kits is that kids learn to closely follow instructions, and their hands are engaged in creating something new. But don’t forget that it’s just as relevant for kids to imagine what is possible and attempt to create it from scratch. True engineering skills come partially from intuition, but also from the trial and error approach of attempting to create something. Even mistakes made will result in a learning experience!

  5. Cultivate a positive attitude. Be encouraging when your child is struggling with a new topic. Disallow negative self-speak, including being aware of making critical statements to yourself when you make a mistake. For better and worse, children will emulate what they see. So be gracious with yourself, and they will, too.

If children are surrounded with encouragement and opportunity, their natural curiosity will keep them engaged. By surrounding them with positive role models, they have a better chance to see themselves in those roles in the future. Girls, in particular, need to see females in leadership roles within the STEM community. So take advantage of mentorship programs and support organizations that have females willing to give back to their communities by sharing their passion for STEM. Show your kids the stars, and that is where they will reach when looking to their futures.