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Why Not? Reframing the dialog about STEM education to put girls back in the equation by Margaret Nagle
Kids in lab coats

Photo illustration by Adam Küykendall

“To diversify the STEM fields we must take a hard look at the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our culture. Encouraging more girls and women to enter these vital fields will require careful attention to the environment in our classrooms and workplaces and throughout our culture.”

Why So Few? Women in Science,
Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Ten-year-old Abby wants to be an artist or a dancer when she grows up. Thirteen-year-olds Holly, Lindy and Page also know what they want to be: photographer, physician and “someone who works with people with special needs.”

Eight-year-old Melody doesn’t know yet; perhaps a softball player.

Compared to the eras when their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were growing up, girls today know early on that they can be anything they want to be, including women working in traditionally male-dominated careers.

Problem is, too few of them are choosing those high-end careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields known as STEM. Somewhere on the journey between verbalizing their aspirations and pursuing their career path, many girls get mixed signals. Or, worse, they are subtly or not so subtly made to understand that the STEM fields are not for them.

It’s not just that life gets in the way. And the fix is not as simple as thinking pink.

“In high school it was obvious that math was definitely for boys,” says 24-year-old Becca, who discovered her aptitude for numbers in college and went into a career in international business. “Nothing was ever said, but it was implied. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy that girls don’t ‘do’ math.”

Among the most recent national groups to study the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers is the Girl Scout Research Institute. Its 2012 report, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, notes that in the life sciences, chemistry and mathematics, women are better represented than they are in engineering, computer science and physics, where they account for only about 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees. Regardless of the STEM area, only about 25 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, according to the report.

“As opposed to the past stereotype that even girls who perform well academically are not interested in STEM (because it is a ‘boy thing’) our research demonstrates that interest among girls is there, it just needs to be primed,” the report says. “The challenge that remains is how to turn girls’ interest into action and make STEM the winner in the competition for girls’ attention when it comes to career choices.”

In 2010, a research report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) cited environmental and social barriers as the chief reasons for so few females in STEM fields. The report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, funded by the National Science Foundation, notes the importance of culture and learning environments in the cultivation of abilities and interests.

“To diversify the STEM fields we must take a hard look at the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our culture,” the report says. “Encouraging more girls and women to enter these vital fields will require careful attention to the environment in our classrooms and workplaces and throughout our culture.”

UMaine Today asked four University of Maine researchers to share their perspectives on why girls and women continue to be absent from this nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics equation. All four are involved in STEM-related initiatives on campus, and their work informs state and national dialog.


Fall 2012

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