A recent study commissioned by Microsoft shows that girls typically lose interest in STEM fields (and humanities, so perhaps they lose interest in academics in general) at around the age of 11. By the age of 15, they have renewed interest in the humanities, but interest in STEM fields does not recover. As one researcher points out, that means that families and educators have only a few years, from the ages of 5 or 6 to the age of 11 or 12, to nurture an interest in STEM fields before girls potentially turn away from it forever.
But why is it important to keep girls interested in these fields and progressing into STEM career paths? While many would cite the gender wage gap, or the scientific (medical, social, technological) implications of a systemic bias toward white males as the “normal” against which others are measured, or the fact that businesses with gender parity in leadership are more stable and profitable, the immediate, urgent reason to train women into these fields is that they are growing rapidly and we lack the necessary workforce. With more trained and qualified workers, we could be making crucial advances in medicine, technology, and engineering. The widespread, systemic loss of female participation in these industries is costly to society and civilization.
To get and keep girls interested in STEM, we need more active, hands-on learning experiences in the classroom; more mentoring and representation of women employed in these industries; and an education that includes women’s contributions to STEM fields and portrays them as role models. Lesson plans that include the contributions of notable women like Cecilia Payne, Ada Lovelace, Chien-Shiung Wu, Grace Hopper, Caroline Herschel and Marie Curie would help equalize representation of women in the sciences. A more gender-balanced education might also help prevent male students from carrying gender biases forward into the workplace.
We have just a few short years to stimulate and engage young minds, and all of society could benefit for decades to come. Let’s start balancing our STEM education and representation today.
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