WASHINGTON — Talmesha Richards remembered being in third grade and thinking math was “the worst thing in the whole wide world.” But she went on to receive bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and chemical engineering and a PhD in cellular molecular medicine.
“I hated math but then I had a teacher who took an interest in me,” said Richards, the chief academic and diversity officer at Million Women Mentors, a nonprofit that helps girls get interested in the science, math, engineering and technology fields. “Every STEM person that I know has had that ‘aha’ moment where the light bulb goes off and you think to yourself I can do this, this is really cool.”
In the United States, despite comprising 47 percent of the workforce, women make up less than 25 percent of jobs in STEM fields, according to statistics from Million Women Mentors.
“How do we create the next generation of women in STEM?” asked Maggie Johnson, director of education and university relations for Google, at the Women in Finance and Technology Symposium at the Treasury on Thursday. “You have to start in elementary school, or maybe even earlier. There’s a gender differentiation that happens in middle school, but if you plant the seed early on some really good things can happen.”
Women haven’t seen much improvement in STEM in the last decade. Between 2001 and 2014, women as a percentage of the engineering workforce dropped from 12 percent to 13 percent and women in the computing workforce dropped from 27 percent to 26 percent, according to statistics from Change the Equation.
“There’s a lot of progress to be made,” said Richards. “No one entity can really move the needle on STEM, it has to be done as a collaborative effort.”
The gender gap in STEM comes from a range of sources: implicit and unconscious biases, subtle messaging in schools, not enough female STEM role models and a lack of support and encouragement from parents at home, to name a few.
According to experts in the field, there is strong connection between the number of female mathematics and science high school teachers and the number of schoolgirls who choose a STEM-related major and graduate with a college degree in a STEM field.
“If you look at the teaching force in STEM education, while there are many women who are teaching STEM fields it tends to be more male heavy than some of the other disciplines,” said Melissa Moritz, deputy director of STEM in the U.S. Department of Education. “So in terms of who we are seeing standing in front of us everyday teaching STEM subjects, we may not have as many women role models.”
Richards said it is imperative to have female role models in classrooms, referencing the saying that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s not only important to have role models to look up to, she said, but also essential to have role models that can mentor with guidance, advice and support.
These role models aren’t only needed in the classroom, but in the media as well.
According to a fact sheet put out by the White House last month, men are depicted as STEM professionals over women 5 to 1 in family films, and specifically portrayed as computer scientists and engineers 14.25 to 1 in family films.
“If you asked any third grader to draw a picture of a scientist, most of them will draw a white man with curly hair and glasses,” said Moritz. “I think it’s important for us to be really deliberate in how we are portraying STEM fields. We need to portray them accurately and ensure that we are constantly look for amazing ways to elevate the diversity of stories that exist around the impact that women have made in STEM.”
Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, an organization promoting women in computer science, believes biases surrounding women and STEM in everyday lives can be altered if we change the conversation put out by the culture.
“Why can I walk into Forever 21 and buy a t-shirt that says I’m allergic to algebra?” she asked at the Thursday Women’s Symposium.
Besides implicit biases, the way science is taught in schools also offers an explanation for the gender gap. Only 30 percent of elementary school teachers feel well equipped to encourage girls to participate in science, according to statistics from the National Science Foundation.
“Girls like to collaborate, girls like to know that what they’re doing is making a difference, they want to be creative and have their ideas heard,” said Tamara Hudgins, the executive director of Girlstart, a Texas-based organization that encourages girls to be involved in STEM through afterschool programs and summer camps.
When a community sends a message suggesting STEM is not creative, Hudgins said it takes the sense of wonder away and that’s when “we begin to lose the girls.”
Moritz said promoting more engaging “problem-based” learning– framing interactive lessons around solving a question– would help raise girls’ interest in STEM.
“We know that teaching STEM in that way is really hard,” she said. “It takes a lot of deliberate preparation, it takes a lot of support. It takes going through experiences that allow you as an educator to experience that way of teaching in order to really change your practice.”
Women in STEM occupations earn 33 percent more than those with non-STEM jobs, according to statistics from the White House.
They earn $0.92 to every $1 a man makes, as compared to the $0.77 a women makes to every $1 a man makes in other fields, according to statistics from Million Women Mentors.
Empowering women to enter the field and narrow the wage gap has been a priority of President Barack Obama’s administration. This was highlighted in the White House Council on Women and Girls, which was established three months into Obama’s presidency.
March is National Women’s History month and a number of federal agencies are holding events on the topic of promoting women in STEM fields and changing the perception of what STEM looks like, according to Moritz.