Bridging the Gender Gap
Educators are clearing the path for new generations of female scientists, mathematicians, engineers and more.
From Katherine Johnson’s groundbreaking space travel calculations to Barbara McClintock’s Nobel Prize-winning role in the discovery of mobile genetic elements, women have contributed tremendously to the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—a grouping commonly referred to by the acronym STEM. Yet, even today, women who pursue STEM-related careers are greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts. It’s a disturbing gap that many educators, politicians and global leaders are working hard to make a remnant of the past.
But why might girls avoid STEM subjects in the first place? According to Pratibha Varma-Nelson, professor of chemistry and the founding executive director of the STEM Education, Innovation and Research Institute (SEIRI) at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, many families, even today, tell young girls that “they don’t belong in the sciences. Low-income and first-generation students especially get this message a lot.”
Changing the picture
Varma-Nelson also points out that STEM disciplines are often taught using outdated methods that are not friendly to students who may already feel hesitant. Furthermore, she says, the disciplines carry an incorrect reputation of being harshly competitive rather than collaborative, and reinforce unhelpful, male-centric stereotypes. For instance, “Pictures of scientists still portray a white male in a beard, working alone,” she says.
Through SEIRI, Varma-Nelson has helped promote a number of initiatives that break down these obstacles. Through the Peer-Led Team Learning mode of teaching, for example, STEM students meet in small groups in tandem with regular lectures, working together closely to solve problems, under the guidance of peer leaders. The model “has shown to increase success rates of all students,” she says, “male, female, minority and majority.”
Bobbi Hansen, an associate professor at the University of San Diego, says that recent changes in educational guidelines within the United States have already begun to impact female STEM participation. She is a faculty member of the university’s online Master of Education in STEAM program, as well as the author of “The Heart and Science of Teaching: Powerful Applications for Every Classroom.”
“In 2016, most states in the United States adopted new science teaching standards for all school-aged children,” she says. “These emphasize process over content. So, when kids learn science, they aren’t just memorizing information; they are the ones in the driver’s seat, experimenting and discovering. This is a huge and fundamental change that is helping girls, and other underrepresented students, to have a growth mind-set, and to understand, from their very first year in school, that they are scientists and that they can do science.”
India-born scientist Asmita Banerjee moved to the United States in 2017 to pursue a doctoral degree in earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice University, Texas. To Banerjee, who has done both her bachelor’s and master’s studies in her native country, STEM subjects have been fascinating for as long as she can remember.
“Playing with numbers was a big part of my childhood,” she recalls. “However, I think, my biggest influences were National Geographic magazines and shows, where scientists would collect molten lava or go to Antarctica to understand our planet better. These just seemed like the coolest things that I could possibly do.”
Banerjee describes her family as valuing education above all else. “So, there was never any gender bias or discrimination there,” she says. But later on, she had to deal with people “implicitly hinting that girls are incapable of doing science.” She has also heard, on multiple occasions, when women outperformed men, the assumption that “it is only because of their gender, or that they somehow used their sexuality to get an advantage.”
Casual sexism is so ingrained in societies around the world, she continues, that people participate in it without realizing the pain that they may be causing. “Inappropriate comments, slight remarks in the lab, inappropriate behavior on field trips and comments about how women are a distraction in the workspace are big obstacles for women,” she says.
Hansen acknowledges that despite notable progress, and stringent university guidelines supporting equitable treatment of both sexes, these undercurrents still exist. What should young female scientists, mathematicians and engineers do if they encounter such friction? “Speak up,” says Hansen. “The law is on your side now and, even though this wasn’t the case in the past, the zeitgeist is on your side. If there are problems, if you feel cut down or discriminated against because you are a woman, make your voice heard.”
Banerjee also advises aspiring female STEM pioneers to persevere. “Never let anyone make you feel that you are not good enough or that STEM studies are not for you,” she says. “You are no less than anyone else, and if someone tells you otherwise, take it as a challenge. Do brilliant work to prove them wrong, but more importantly, to prove to yourself that you are capable of everything that you dream of.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.