How to Encourage Girls in STEM from a Young Age
Everybody knows that men far outnumber women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. For a very long time it was assumed that men were simply better at these sorts of things, that women just didn't have the mind for it. But recent research has shown that girls in school score similarly to boys in math and science, or even slightly better.
But this same research also cited that girls far outperformed boys in the humanities. This could be a possible explanation for why girls choose career paths in the arts, or there could be something said for the oftentimes unintended gender roles we place on boys and girls from a young age.
If girls want to follow careers in the humanities and arts, why encourage them to follow a different path? Firstly, it is still unknown how large a role gender roles and biases play in these decisions, so it's important to broaden the range of fields that girls can aspire to. Secondly, technology and science is rapidly expanding, quickly taking over our world and our lives. It is said that, because of the rate at which technology is improving and disrupting industries, we don't have a clue what jobs will look like by the time the children of today become adults. How do you even begin to prepare a child for that?
The answer, many believe, is to give children a more solid understanding of STEM subjects, as these will become the basis for future jobs. If girls and women continue to be underrepresented in these fields in the future, they may be left behind.
Another thing to consider is that STEM jobs tend to earn the bigger bucks. Encouraging girls to take an interest in STEM subjects from a young age may help to close the pay gap between men and women while ensuring a seat at the table in future industries.
So, how can we encourage young girls to take an interest in STEM?
See where their natural interests intersect with STEM
First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with being more interested in the humanities and the arts than in STEM. If we lived in a world where arts and humanities ruled, maybe things would be a little different for girls these days (who can say?) But the fact of the matter is that we live in a world ruled by STEM. One way or another, in any path your daughter chooses, they will bump up against STEM.
It is important NOT to discourage your daughter from pursuing her interests. Rather, see where those interests intersect with STEM. Does she love to draw? Perhaps she can learn a computer program that helps her draw imaginary worlds in digital form. Does she love music? Maybe she would be fascinated to learn that all music is math. There are many opportunities to encourage your daughter to follow her dreams while helping her get a leg up on future industries.
Be conscious of gender roles
The world we live in is absolutely lousy with subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about the way we should act as men and women. This starts from a very young age, and whether we realize it or not, all of us tend to enforce these ideas because it is what we know. This is not to say that you should force your daughter to play with trucks while you buy Barbie dolls for your son. Instead, if your daughter wants a Barbie doll, see if you can buy a Barbie who's a doctor or a scientist. Instead of assuming from the get-go that your daughter will want to play with princess things and kitchen sets, maybe see how she likes to dress up as badass female figures or play games that enhance her spacial awareness and engineering skills.
When watching movies and TV shows, if you see a cast dominated by male figureheads, point out to your daughter other females you know who are in the same field. Spend some time together after watching the movie learning about women in the same field who have made big strides in STEM. Or maybe talk about women they know in person who are accomplished in STEM.
You can also choose to watch children's shows and read children's books that elevate girls and women and position them in STEM roles and leadership roles.
Do STEM-related activities together
There are many science centers you can take your daughter to to spark her imagination and curiosity. Many times these places have games to play or experiments to try that are not only fun but are educational. Chances are your daughter will find something in there that she takes to. Even if she doesn't, she may at least come to see STEM as fun and imaginative rather than something stuffy and boring.
Bet on your daughter's natural curiosity
All children are natural-born scientists. They're always asking questions. "Mommy, how do birds fly?" "Daddy, where does the sun go at night?" Instead of giving placating answers, whenever you can, do research together to instil in her a love for research and learning. Highlight for her that the two of you are "doing science" together. After all, science is only the art of asking questions and searching for answers. Technology is the art of coming up with solutions.
Give praise for the process, never punish failure
Science is all about learning, discovering, and often failing. Most of science is the process, not the result. So, giving praise aimed at the process - the curiosity, excitement, enthusiasm, hard work, tenacity, ingenuity - will help encourage a scientific mind. On the other hand, punishing failure will teach your daughter that trying isn't good enough, which may kill the whole endeavor. Instead, build her confidence with praise for her scientific process.
Remember, the point of all of this is not to have a daughter who becomes a doctor or a scientist or an engineer or a professional who wins a Nobel prize in the sciences. The point is that, from a young age she can learn that STEM is not just for boys, it's for everyone. No matter what path she chooses in life, the hope is that this early foundation will expand her idea of what is possible for her. When inevitably her career choice will place her face to face with technology, she will be ready to embrace it.