There is a growing movement within Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (or STEM) related sciences indicating a growing under-representation of female members of the workforce, as compared to their male counterparts. There are a number of contributing factors as to why this may be the case, some of which I plan to detail here. Though, when a single gender occupies just 25% of the total number of workers in a given industry, the impetus is on us all to help develop long term solutions- particularly those of us in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. The Educational Testing Service survey noted that 61% of opinion leaders and 40% of the general public identify math, science and technology skills as the most important elements of a national strategy to compete in the global economy, making this component of education a national imperative. (Zinth, Kyle. 2006. Recent State STEM Initiatives. Denver: Education Commission of the States.)
- Photo by Ryan Brenizer
A National Issue- Possible Causes & Painful Realities
In November 2005, the background paper for a workshop on “Women in Scientific Careers” conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and its working group on the Steering and Funding of Research Institutions (SFRI) concluded that:
“…women obtain more than half of all university degrees in many countries but only around 30% of university degrees awarded in science and technology, OECD countries face a paradoxical situation: a feminisation of the workforce in general and of university-trained graduates in particular, but continued under-representation of women in the research workforce. …the available data tend to reinforce results from the academic literature that show women remain unevenly distributed in research occupations and under-represented in senior positions.”
Does this paradox owe itself to a glass ceiling responsible for the “under-represent(ation of women) in senior positions” or to the prevalence of an existing bias within the industry? Some blame the widespread cultural prevalence of gender stereotypes that are responsible for reinforcing a defeatist belief among female children that “Math is for boys and not for girls”- findings sadly supported by a study of Second graders, conducted by researchers from the University of Washington released in The Science Daily.
Regardless of the reasons, the numbers do not look promising. The Information Technology Association of America revealed that the number of women in the Information Technology (IT) workforce is continuing to decline: from a high of 41% in 1996 to 32% in 2004 despite female representation in the workforce as a whole continued to remain stead at 46% in the same period.
There is a particularly low level of academic engagement in STEM related learning among minority, female and lower-income students, who collectively comprise a growing proportion of the total college-going public. In fact, a study conducted by the National Science Foundation using the National Assessment of Educational Progress noted “that of students at the 12th grade level, about three out of four white and Asian students scored at above basic level (which is far below proficient) on the math assessment, while fewer than half of Hispanics and under a third of African American students scoring the same level”. (US Department of Labor “The Stem Workforce Challenge: The Role of the Public Workforce in a National Solution for a Competitive Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Workforce- April, 2007)
In fact the shrinking number of women pursuing STEM related careers as part of their higher education is a disparity that is also reflected in levels of female employment as either “Full” or “Tenured” members of academic faculty. Consider the following graphs noting the percentage of doctoral scientist and engineers employed in universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are tenured, by race/ethnicity and gender- made available, again, by the National Science Foundation.
Percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are tenured, by race/ethnicity and gender
Percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are full professors, by race_ethnicity and sex
In light of the previously mentioned figures, a number of organizations have risen up to brazenly challenge the disaffecting status-quo. One particularly encouraging trend has been the growing number of partnerships formed between a number of non-profit organizations and after-school advocacy programs. This model is a particularly encouraging one when quantitatively measured.
The efficacy of improving student Math scores made possible by the implementation of after school programs is affirmed through a study by the Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEERA). In their evaluation of “Enhanced Academic Instruction in After-School Programs” in their 2009 report, a review of student test scores in 15 of their participating centers, the NCEERA found that when students received an additional 48 hours of Math instruction over a year-long period resulted in an increase of 3.5 scaled score points in SAT 10 total math scores- a statistically significant number.
The AfterSchool Alliance is one organization, among many, working to expand access to after-school education across the United States. Established in 2000 through a public/private partnership between the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, J.C. Penney Company, Inc., the Open Society Institute/The After-School Corporation, the Entertainment Industry Foundation and the Creative Artists Agency Foundation, the AfterSchool Alliance stands as an example of how public/private partnerships help to positively shape realities on the ground. Their “Afterschool in Action” blog series documents the successes of effective programs nationwide, with the latest blog post honoring the many female focused afterschool programs, highlighting programs working to energize young women to succeed in STEM related subjects.
Among the organizations highlighted, courtesy of Ramya Sankar‘s post are the following:
- “Art2STEM- which promotes STEM related subjects through art in Nashville, TN. Through activities like creating animations and architectural design, the programming focuses on creativity and showing how the arts complement STEM fields. As part of Alignment Nashville’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) grant from NSF, the afterschool program exposes girls to various STEM topics through these hands-on activities as well as field trips to local tech businesses.
|Photo courtesy of Dell|
- GirlStart – Located in Austin, TX, GirlStart offers afterschool programs, summer camps and various outreach events throughout the year in Central Texas to encourage and inspire girls to consider science as an option and equipping them with STEM skills. GirlStart received NSF funding to create Project IT Girl—highlighted in our report on outcomes and impacts of STEM learning in afterschool—which exposes high school girls to computer programming and provides them with experience working with a local tech company. Girls are also connected with female STEM professionals during the Girls in STEM Conference for 4th-8th graders where they learn about STEM careers.
- SciTech – Started by the Ruben H. Fleet Center in San Diego, CA, SciTech participants work on projects throughout the school year that focus on their problem solving skills. The afterschool program is offered at eight elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. Girls work on projects in subjects ranging from renewable energy sources to food chemistry. Students also participate in The Tech Challenge, sponsored by the Tech Museum in San Jose, CA. Local female STEM professionals also come and do presentations and interact with students to serve as role models.”
Meanwhile, organizations like The National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) are engaged nationwide (USA) to support programs like those previously mentioned, by integrating them within their vast networks of support. Others like the volunteer based BlackGirlsCode organize “Code Camps” for young women of color, imparting 21st century skills while engaging members of their community directly. Others focus their engagement online, like the Steminist, who through social media and the internet work to increase awareness and visibility of successful programs for others to learn from.
What programs like BlackGirlsCode, GirlStart, SciTech & Art2STEM offer to students, schools and members of their community, are successful models of public/private partnership that deserve to be emulated, because no one can do it alone. Unfortunately, more often than not, non-profit organizations simply don’t have the resources to fund-raise while simultaneously focusing on delivering results on the ground.
Regardless of how organizations focus their efforts, by joining forces with fellow members of the educational sector, partnerships can be formed to deliver the next generation of innovative products that increase accessibility to students, with the opportunity to be supported by third party sponsors. The responsibility of educating the next generation of professionals, is one we all share in one capacity or another. Whether we are parents, educators, school administrators, industry leaders or philanthropists at heart- each of us can do our part to encourage our daughters and sisters to achieve. In doing so, we not only have a hand in shaping our future but ensure a stronger economy and globally competitive workforce, where we all have a chance to succeed.