Young Girls’ Dreams Are the Key to Solving the STEM Gender Achievement Gap

Louisa Wang ’20, Avani Ahuja ’22, and Julie Steele ’22 pose for a picture after winning first place in a math team competition at the University of Virginia. Source: Suzy Hamon

As a girl who participates in math competitions and considers herself a “STEM kid,” I am used to seeing enormous gender disparities in my extracurriculars. At many of the math competitions I participate in, boys comprise over ninety percent of participants. In fact, since the U.S. started participating in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), 88 percent of its teams have been entirely male.

The lack of female participation in STEM in high school and middle school translates to a gender achievement gap in STEM fields. Despite conscious efforts by universities and other organizations to increase the number of females they accept into their STEM programs, the fraction of women in STEM continues to decline. For example, the number of women in computing has fallen from 35 percent in 1990 to just 26 percent today, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The continuously decreasing participation of women in STEM fields is an indication of a bigger societal issue that affects girls from a young age.

Powerful stereotypes continue to exist that suggest inferior capabilities of women in STEM. Perpetrated by the lack of representation in the media (for example, according to Ally Marotti from the Chicago Tribune, men comprise nearly 67 percent of STEM characters in films), these stereotypes pervade our daily lives and send a harmful message to young girls. As a result, girls are often inclined toward non-STEM career paths, choosing to pursue fields where they see themselves represented. Girls who get involved in STEM carry the extra burdens of negative stereotypes, uncomfortable situations and increased pressures to perform.

Why do we need women in STEM?

The importance of women in STEM fields goes beyond an ethical obligation for gender diversity. Christal Boyd, High School Technical Director and Drama Teacher, said that a wider variety of people in a field directly benefits the workforce itself: “In general, the more diverse a group is, the more diverse thinking is involved, and from that, we hope for outcomes that benefit more people.”

In fact, scientific innovations can’t be considered relevant and accurate if they aren’t accounting for half the population. Without females in the scientific workforce, new technologies will continue to be tailored toward one exclusive group: the males who are developing them.

The involvement of women in STEM is just the first step toward a more diverse labor force. Participating in STEM builds self-confidence in young women and enables them to get involved in other male-dominated fields. Anjali Bose, head of the Women in STEM club at GDS, said, “It’s really important for women to get involved in STEM, especially young women, because not only can young women learn to academically challenge themselves, but can explore their passions and skill set, as well as build confidence to be stronger figures in whatever they chose to achieve.”

GDS classrooms are not immune to this polarized gender dynamic in STEM fields, no matter how forward-thinking our community is. Bose said, “Personally, all my STEM classes are majority male. This is really intimidating especially when I’m struggling in these classes because I don’t want to be looked down on for being one of the few female students, so I chose to struggle, and then I become less motivated in those challenging classes.”

The toxic environment in classrooms and, as a result, at STEM competitions stems from existing gender norms. In an interview, Bose said, “Male students assume underlying power positions in the classroom, and this may not be a direct fault of the teachers, but the overall norm of how boys are raised versus girls. Girls sometimes are taught to be more reserved in the classroom while boys feel comfortable to be a stronger presence.”

I have been told in my STEM extracurricular activities that I don’t need to be part of an all-boys team. I feel as if society at large questions my ability as a girl to perform both simple and complex tasks in STEM fields much more often than they do for my male peers. Constant sexist rhetoric can effectively exclude girls from STEM, creating challenging and demotivating situations for girls.

The reworking of deeply ingrained biases can prove to be a difficult task, but encouraging young girls to become interested in STEM from a young age will reduce the likelihood that they will drop out when they are older. Bose said, “When young girls discover their passion for STEM at a young age, those girls make their STEM education more of a priority, which means they would choose to take more challenging STEM classes when they reach high school and college and pushing themselves academically even more.”

Part of that encouragement includes providing role models who encourage young girls in STEM fields. Freshman Madeleine Popofsky said, “We need to stop giving only men who are accomplished in the STEM fields a pedestal to stand on but instead give girls someone to look up to as well.” Providing recognition for mathematicians such as Maryam Mirzakhani, a Fields Medal winner and IMO perfect-scorer, has the potential to inspire young girls to pursue their passions in math and science in a way that previously seemed impossible.

My most valuable experience in STEM has been interacting and meeting other girls who are as passionate about math and science as I am. Building relationships with other girls through common interests has served as a support system for me, and I have made some of my best friends through math.

Tom Gutnick, a summer instructor for Girls Who Code (GWC), a non-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology, said that at GWC, “we help them develop a sisterhood network, so they can support each other throughout their years in high school and college and into their careers. We give them confidence, so that if they find themselves, for example, in an AP Computer Science class where 90% of the students are male, they’ll know that they’re at least as capable and worthy of being there as someone else.” Cultivating a community of women interested in STEM through clubs and workshops will help girls realize that they are not alone. Through dreams, inspiration and community support, women will finally get their long-overdue share of recognition in STEM fields.

Avani Ahuja ’22