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How Teacher Support can Help Bridge the STEM Gender Gap

In 2019, the US Census revealed that at least 10.8 million people work in STEM occupations. The report indicated that while more women in the US are joining the field, it's still heavily dominated by men, who make up 73% of all workers. 

The stark gender gap reveals that women are still not entering the field despite efforts to create gender parity in STEM. We should stop blaming a lack of career opportunities and instead look towards how our schools reinforce certain beliefs about women in STEM. Perhaps we are unintentionally teaching our girls that STEM is not meant for them.

The solution? Teacher support.

Teacher support is a formidable tool for bridging the STEM gender gap since educators can inspire students to pursue passions in the field. These five approaches can help teachers provide constructive support by encouraging female and female-identifying students to join STEM.

*Note: though we recognize there are more than two genders, this article is based on the US Census's breakdown of gender demographics in its 2019 study. 

1. Embrace Inclusivity In The Classroom

It's a widely-held stereotype that boys have more STEM capabilities than girls. Western society has unfortunately reinforced this perception for hundreds of years, and it still sneaks in in damaging ways. 

Such viewpoints unconsciously affect girls, influencing their interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In the classroom, teacher support can change these mistakes by inspiring female-identifying students to be more interested in STEM fields.

In action, teacher support includes speaking to students as equals, providing equal opportunities to all genders. Teachers should assume that everyone is interested in STEM and structure lessons accordingly. During class activities and projects, give your female students the leadership role to help them believe in their capabilities. 

Avoid labels and gender-specific language. Build an environment where gender stereotypes are examined, countered, and dispelled to inspire a new generation.

2. Create Supports For Peer Mentoring Early

One of the reasons for the STEM gender gap is the high levels of isolation of women in the field. When most girls realize that not many peers are interested in coding or mathematics, they reconsider their choices. 

So, to help girls find support as minorities in STEM, initiate peer mentoring support through programs where they can meet real-life mentors. Contacts with such mentors can build confidence and enforce visions of what opportunities look like for them in STEM.

Teachers can support mentorship efforts by inviting women working in STEM as guest speakers. These academic and professional mentors can have long-lasting impressions on young girls since they can relate to their challenges and struggles. 

You could also hold camps or team sessions with older girls pursuing STEM within your school. Having older mentors to look up to enforces notions that girls are making the right choices in choosing STEM fields.

3. Move Away From Multiple-Choice Tests 

Studies in test scores reveal that while girls are competent in high-level math, they often score lower than males on multiple-choice tests. Girls also tend to perform better with open-ended answers. Factors other than gender, like gender-based social conditioning, most likely explain why this is so.

However, based on this study, moving away from multiple-choice tests in math and science could allow girls' STEM proficiency to shine. When forming your exam questions, put context before content. 

For example, a study into the value of framing in STEM revealed that girls are likely to say "No" when someone asks them if they want to become engineers. The National Academy of Engineering study showed that the same girls would say "Yes" when asked if they want to save the rainforest or design safe water systems. This reveals that girls are more likely to respond positively when STEM content is contextualized. 

If educators adopt such approaches and opt for open-ended questions, girls may be more open to embracing STEM.

4. Highlight Innovative STEM Role Models

As children grow up, they look for role models and try to emulate them. The classroom is the best environment for positive role-modeling that honors innovative people and their contributions. While history has many female STEM legends, society has generally ignored them. As a teacher, celebrating these individuals is an incredible approach to addressing injustice and showing your students that they could achieve similar successes.

Have days when you celebrate famous women in STEM and their contributions to the world. Notable names include Ada Lovelace, who developed an algorithm as an early computer scientist, and two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. Curie's work in physics and chemistry makes her one of the most inspiring female scientists of all time. 

5. Consider STEM Camps and Events 

Schools have budgets for student events and workshops, and creating resources for STEM can excite anyone about the field. Many organizations offer assistance to educational institutions through STEM events, and you can use such avenues to inspire your students. 

One popular initiative for girls pursuing STEM is the NASA One-Day STEM Events that are open to students, teachers, and parents. The event was created to engage students by offering them authentic learning experiences.

Another great avenue is the Hour of Code that "demystifies" the belief that coding and computer science is complicated. With activities and tutorials available to educators, the Hour of Code is a great avenue for reducing the gender gap in the field. 

The important thing, however, is to encourage girls to signup and participate. You may even want to hold a "Girls in STEM" event to give them a safe space to enter into the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

We Must Improvise & Adapt To Overcome STEM Gender Gaps

As educators, it's important to acknowledge that we can't address gender gaps in STEM with a blanket solution. Real change takes time. To succeed, we must challenge ourselves and think outside the box. 

Ultimately, female-identifying students will show more interest in STEM when we expose them to these opportunities in school. But we cannot stop at one grade. The encouragement must continue at every grade level. The interest stops only when someone tells them to stop being interested.

That said, never force a student into STEM. Though you may think the exposure will be beneficial, it may end up having the opposite effect.


Written by Simon Riitho

Education World Contributor

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