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Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

March is Women’s History Month in the U.S.On March 8th we celebrated International Women’s History Day, and on March 12, 2012 the Girl Scouts of America celebrated their 100th anniversary. Girl Scouts, like many organizations that have celebrated centennials, didn’t get to be 100 by accident. This non-profit has had to change with the times, re-invent themselves more than once, and identify how to be real, relevant, relational, and rousing to several generations of women.

My blog this week spotlights a recent report released by The Girl Scout Research Institute (GSRI), Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (2012). The objective of the report, which was partially funded by Lockheed Martin, was to explore how girls can better become engaged in STEM through examination of what girls themselves say are their interests and perceptions about these fields and the career choices associated with them.

Citing strides thatU.S.women have made over the past 50 years in education and their careers, the report states that they still continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math – collectively referred to as “STEM.” Why talk about women, girls and STEM? The U.S. Bureau of Census total population estimate for July 1, 2010 is 309,349,689. Females represent 157,241,696 or 50.8% of this total. If we are to increase the number of STEM professionals in this country, women must be included in this discussion.

Women are one-half of the U.S.population. Their roles and positions in the first half of the 21st century are not only going to be different than the second half of the 20th century – their roles and positions must be different! Women are faring better, academically, than ever before. According to the report, the majority of college graduates (57%) and master’s level graduates (60%) are women, and nearly half (48%) of this country’s work force is comprised of women. However, women account for about only 20% of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics, and 25% or less of professional STEM positions are held by women.

As a practicing engineer, here’s one statistic that I know all too well – only 10% of engineers in the workforce are women. Not only is this low percentage a sad reality, it has been true for over 30 years.

Governments (all levels), business, academia and other sectors have been interested in increasing the number of STEM graduates and employees for some time. We know that women can be successful in the classroom. They can and have been successful in STEM education and careers. We just need more of them to do this!

Five key findings emerged from this study:

  1. Girls like STEM.
  2. The creative and problem solving aspects of STEM draw girls.
  3. The DNA of a “STEM Girl” sets her apart.
  4. A gap exists between STEM interest and career choice.
  5. The story differs for African American and Hispanic girls.

This blog isn’t long enough to discuss each key finding in great detail. However, I would like to focus my discussion on Findings 1 and 4.

Finding 1: Girls like STEM

The research reported that 74% of a national sample (sample population of 852) of teen girl respondents expressed an interest in STEM related subjects and careers. Interest in STEM was defined as responding “somewhat” or “very” interested in the general field of STEM. These results show that girls are familiar with the term STEM, and are overwhelmingly interested in the topic. Some might argue that this age group is interested in a plethora of topics. I agree.

The study also showed that girls who are interested in STEM fields are actually interested in many subjects and career opportunities—STEM is just one area of interest among many. I view this as a good thing. It was not too long ago that most women were only encouraged to pursue traditional female careers. It is also good to know that they have choices today, and a say in those choices.

Contrary to past research, GSRI’s study shows that interest does not drop during middle school, but remains high, since nearly 74% of high school girls said they are interested in STEM. GSRI notes that some of the discrepancy between past studies and this study can be explained by the way STEM interest was measured. In past studies, girls’ interest in STEM was measured more concretely, focusing on one area of STEM interest (e.g., computing) or on intentions to major in a STEM subject in college. GSRI’s measure of STEM dealt more with general interest in STEM fields, and measured STEM interest in the present, rather than in the future.

Finding 4: A gap exists between STEM interest and career choice.

Finding 1 reports good news for those who are interested in promoting STEM to young women. Finding 4 shows that although a young woman may be interested in STEM fields, more often than not, she will not make it her career choice. More importantly, although interest in STEM is high, few girls consider it their number one career choice, given competing opportunities and interests. For this study, only 13% said that it was their first choice.

“I think some girls don’t want to do [STEM] because they don’t think it’s something girls should do. It’s a boy subject; they should stay far away from it.” —teen girl, Indianapolis, Indiana

So, what careers interest young women the most? Two-thirds of STEM girls are interested in medicine/healthcare (careers such as a doctor, veterinarian, nurse, pharmacist, dentist, etc.) as a career choice and STEM girls choose this field as their number one choice over any other career (30%). These data are in-line with my conversations with young women that I have spoken with at the grade school, high school and college levels. More specifically, they talk about wanting a career that:

  •         helps people.
  •         makes the world a better place.
  •         helps the environment.

It is also interesting to note that about 30% of the girls in the study also expressed an interest in being stay-at-home moms.

What some of the study results show is that there are disconnects and misunderstanding of opportunities for women in STEM careers. STEM careers can and do help people, make the world a better place, and can help the environment. My volunteer work with the National Future City CompetitionTM Arizona Region for the past 15 years is but one example of this disconnect between students, teachers, and the STEM community. Locally, teachers, parents, and students walk away from the region competition each year saying, “I never knew what engineers or scientists did until now”.

It also shows that those most interested in increasing the population of women pursuing STEM education and careers must reconsider the way that STEM is marketed to young girls. I agree! Not only does “STEM marketing” need a make-over for girls, it also needs a makeover for boys as well. Survey data from the Arizona Future City Competition shows that 7th and 8th grade boys often express and interest designing video games as a career, yet they did not associate studying engineering or STEM related majors as a way to do this. This Grand Canyon-size gap in thinking by our youth must be filled.

I encourage all readers of this blog to get a copy of GSRI’s report: Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (2012). You can order a hard copy of the report or download an electronic copy from the Girl Scouts website.


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


2 thoughts on “Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

  1. Regarding your statement, “It is also interesting to note that about 30% of the girls in the study also expressed an interest in being stay-at-home moms,”

    (1) What are some viable part-time STEM careers?
    (2) How can stay-at-home moms encourage (and be role models) for STEM girls?


    Posted by Andrew Gwie | March 25, 2012, 3:51 pm
    • Andrew, your question is very timely, and unfortunately, it often goes unanswered. I’m sad to say that I know too many women who are afraid to ask if there is an opportunity to add some flexibility to their schedule when they need it for fear of hearing no, or being perceived as weak and not being able to “cut-it”. Truthfully, more opportunities exists to work part-time today than ever before.
      1) What are some viable part-time STEM careers for women?
      Job-sharing has been practiced in a number of career settings for more than two decades. One drawback to job-sharing for STEM women would be to find someone who has similar skills and is also interested in a part-time opportunity. Also given the advancement in the internet and information systems and technology, men and women are not tied to the office the way that we used to be in the past. The only drawback here is having a manager who does not support this practice. The biggest challenge to part-time work are manufacturing positions that require significant time on the floor with employees, and jobs that require lots of field work.
      2) How can stay-at-home moms encourage (and be role models) for STEM girls?
      I’ve seen a number of stay at home moms with STEM backgrounds engage in volunteer work at their children schools, and some have even become certified substitute or full-blown teachers – most often in science or math subjects. Others have participated on the board of education and local PTAs, planned field trips, and special in-class experiments, etc.
      Once again, a lot of the obstacle is overcoming the challenge of asking and seeking out new opportunities to support STEM-education for boys and girls.


      Posted by Vi Brown | March 27, 2012, 10:15 pm

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