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Women in STEM

Women in STEM: Confidence, Stereotypes, and Opportunities

Virginia R. Jones, Ph.D.

President, International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Dean of Student Success and Enrollment Services, Patrick Henry Community College

Today there exists an unprecedented need for qualified STEM workers everywhere.

Despite this consistent lack STEM workers, females have historically been cast in careers that involve nurturing, caring for, and helping others. Well, guess what? We like to get our hands dirty and break a sweat too — all while attempting to make life better for others! It is time to stop the division between genders and treat all equitably in learning. For more than twenty years, we have believed that role models alone could stop the stereotypes, but until we begin at the grassroots levels — in elementary learning and in homes — changes will continue to be slow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reminds us that women are woefully underrepresented in engineering and architecture, IT and mathematics, chemistry and materials science, and biological science. It is time to break those barriers and the glass ceiling of pay inequity for women in STEM. Women have been in the workforce while remaining primary providers for their families for years, yet pay inequities are shamefully still prevalent.

STEM is everywhere

This pandemic has taught us a real lesson; careers in bioscience or technology are critical to our nation’s wellbeing, but so are the skills of construction, plumbing, HVAC, and others. This slowdown in our busy lives has helped Americans to realize that we need all types of help from others to sustain our lifestyles. Allowing learners to understand these careers at an early age helps erase historical stereotypes that these are the dirty jobs. Rather, these are vital skills needed for sustaining our society. A strong background in technological literacy is necessary for all of these jobs, as technology is intertwined in all we do, from pumping gas to building an artificial prothesis.

Gendered learning

Let’s stop the rhetoric of “blue” jobs vs. “pink” jobs and head for an understanding of “STEM jobs for all.” Females do need to make big strides in careers they choose, and public education should lay the groundwork to help them stay connected with their early passions. Do not accept the excuse that “I’m not good at math.” Humans successfully use math in their daily lives, so it’s unrealistic to say that so many are “bad” at it. Harness that from the beginning and treat all learners equally to understand their inner abilities to decode the math world.

Females often struggle with spatial intelligence or language. Break it down into terms and examples that resonate with them. Talk about visualization, design elements, and awareness of how the human body performs — all terms that can help females better grasp these concepts. Often, educators fail to match their teaching styles to students’ learning styles based on gender. Adolescent girls tend to disengage from math and science in upper elementary and middle school, but harnessing their interest at early ages, instilling confidence, and providing role models helps them stay connected. Rather than competing with the males, they are learning along with them. Finally, reassure females, as data shows they tend to be more critical of their accomplishments than their male counterparts.

Engaging young learners

ITEEA’s Standards for Technological and Engineering Literacy (STEL) promotes breaking down the silos of learning, making it integrative across disciplines. These standards cover all levels from PreK to Grade 12, with real-world, hands-on ways to engage learners. It takes purposeful, conscious efforts to keep females engaged in integrative STEM careers.

As an educator, I strongly believe it is long past time to break down these barriers and allow all learners an opportunity to follow their passions — those passions and joys they freely exhibit in elementary school. With encouragement and support, those passions will help them to discover and flourish in those valued, much-needed STEM careers that will benefit the student and our society at large.

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