THE INSTITUTEWomen have made some of the world’s most remarkable scientific breakthroughs. Their stories aren’t celebrated nearly enough, but it takes only a little research to find women who’ve excelled in science, technology, engineering, and math. When I first realized at a young age that women were not being encouraged to follow their passions and talents in STEM fields, I made up my mind to help change that.
For much of my career, I’ve been dedicated to helping young women realize their potential and get excited about STEM careers. While working with girls and young women in Mexico, I learned some powerful lessons about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to ensuring that the next generation of women feels empowered to close the gender gap.
Here’s what I found out.
1. Young Women Need Relatable Role Models
Girls might not believe they can turn their interest in STEM subjects into a career if they see only men in those fields. It’s the job of those of us who work in these fields to show them that women have contributed significantly to STEM fields throughout history despite the odds—and they can too.
Girls today are lucky enough to have many accomplished women they can look up to. We need to celebrate these pioneers and share their stories with young women to show that STEM careers are for everyone with the curiosity and passion to pursue one.
2. Nothing Beats Real-World Experience
The titles engineer and programmer are abstract terms and can be intimidating. Without hands-on, real-world experiences, girls have trouble imagining themselves in such roles.
By participating in practical and fun engineering, programming, and scientific activities from an early age, girls can get a clearer understanding of what they could do as an engineer or programmer. It’s all about making STEM feel more accessible, welcoming, and exciting.
The good news is that there are tons of free online resources for activities at home and in the classroom.
3. Teach the Why Behind the Benefits of STEM
Many young women want to change the world. They want to know how science and technology can solve public health issues and environmental problems and make the world a safer place. We need to do a better job of showing them just how crucial STEM fields are for reaching those goals. It’s not enough to say that STEM offers excellent career opportunities. We have to take it a step further and show them how STEM can make a difference in tackling society’s problems.
4. It Doesn’t Have to Be a Competition
It’s unfortunate that in school and at work, we’re encouraged to make everything a competition. When it comes to closing the gender gap, it’s important to remember that competition isn’t always the best method of encouraging children to succeed. They should be taught to indulge their interests and curiosity.
It’s also important to help women and girls lift each other up during the learning process by working together. Collaboration between students can help build confidence and make the learning process more enjoyable.
5. Praise Is Important
Cultural expectations often shape girls’ interest—or disinterest—in STEM subjects. We need to be aware of the expectations and use encouragement as a tool for allowing girls to explore their options.
Girls must be provided with the resources they need to indulge their curiosity and should be praised for their initiative and effort in exploring STEM subjects. A pat on the back can go a long way for a girl who might feel insecure about her interest in science or math in a culture that doesn’t encourage her interest.
6. Advocates Are Needed
For decades we’ve been fed the myth that girls don’t have the aptitude for math, science, and programming. Objectively, that simply isn’t true. We need to show girls that we know they can be just as successful as boys in STEM fields.
Without mentors and teachers breaking down the barriers, many girls will abandon their interest in STEM fields. Creating awareness and actively reaching out to students can help pave the way toward equality.
Girls are just as skilled in the subjects as boys are. The difference is that they need to know STEM is for them. It all goes back to expectations.
Only after we address that discrepancy will we start to see real changes in the gender gap.
Valarie Romero is an academic, consultant, and researcher with a passion for improving social equity in education. She advocates for and mentors preuniversity girls interested in STEM subjects. She plans to launch a nonprofit that focuses on increasing the number of female STEM researchers.