Solve the STEM Shortage By Getting Girls Excited

Mar 1, 2019

The US economy is booming right now. Unemployment is at a historic low, while wages and overall business confidence keep rising. But the tide can change quickly despite the current powerhouse performance.

For example, a recent study suggests a projected shortfall of 2.4 million workers in key manufacturing roles over the next decade. Of course, the manufacturing sector is seeing rapid transformation right now, and the shortfall isn’t in rank-and-file assembly line jobs, but specialized positions. According to industry executives, the top five in-demand skills needed for these positions are:

  1. Technology/computers
  2. Digital
  3. Programming for robots/automation
  4. Tool and technology proficiency
  5. Critical thinking

Deloitte projects the shortage of laborers with these in-demand skills will cost the US economy roughly $2.5 trillion by 2028. It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

Women are an underrepresented talent pool

There are incredible opportunities available for workers willing to attain the necessary skills. Despite that, few bachelor’s degrees in computing or engineering awarded in 2017 went to women. The totals stood at just about 17% for computer science and 27.2% for general engineering.

What’s the cause of this achievement gap in STEM-related fields? National math tests and science exams produce very similar scores for boys and girls between the fourth and eighth grades. Once students reach high school, though, the paths start to diverge.

Girls tend to stray from STEM fields as they approach graduation and enter college. It’s not quite clear why this shift away from technical fields occurs. It could be because studies like math and science are perceived as “boys’ stuff.” Regardless, we need to find a way to attract more girls at early ages into STEM fields.

Why does it matter? Well, homogenous groups are more likely to underperform, compared to the potential for a more diverse workforce. Compounded by the general shortage of laborers with the specialized skills mentioned above, it’s not hard to imagine the US losing its position as a leader in innovative, forward-thinking manufacturing.

Start STEM early

I’m convinced the disparity in women pursuing STEM education in college is less a problem of general interest and more a lack of positive reinforcement.

Few women pursue and complete degrees in these fields because they’re never encouraged to do so. STEM can be intimidating, and the opportunities that math and science education present are not immediately obvious to most students. If young girls are not inspired to take on the challenge, they won’t feel the urge to try.

Young students often find science and math education difficult and boring. However, they love the practical applications of this knowledge. Schools can use that to their advantage, reframing science and math to foster a STEM-positive subjects from an early age.

This demands a two-pronged approach: Educators can take STEM-related activities and present them in a more familiar, fun approach, while also cultivating a positive outlook on STEM in general. For example, a recent experiment conducted among six-year-old girls gave them the opportunity to program a robot using a smartphone. Those who participated reported being more interested in technology, compared to girls who did not have this experience.

Educators can supplement this hands-on approach with more information about STEM applications. They can learn about pioneering women in scientific history, and gain insight into what they can accomplish.

Private sector role

Private companies reliant on workers trained in STEM fields should take a lead role in developing their future workforce.

Tech leaders like Facebook, Salesforce, Google, and others committed more than $300 million to promote STEM education in 2018. This can take the form of coding camps, for example, reframing coding as a fun activity in students’ minds, plus other hands-on activities and mentorship programs.

There’s also the AAUW Tech Trek, which is a weeklong STEM-focused program at college campuses around the country targeted specifically at eighth-grade girls. That’s the perfect age to capture students’ attention; old enough to think about future careers, but before they start tuning out STEM as a potential path.

Of course, retaining talent is just as important as acquiring it, and workplace culture and opportunity are at the center of this matter. Common reasons women leave tech-related jobs include:

  • Lack of career potential
  • Poor management
  • Inadequate pay
  • Mismatch with company culture

Employers should be proactive about these concerns. Not only will they be able to retain top talent and prevent women from leaving the company, and potentially the industry altogether, they can also use it as an opportunity to promote themselves to young women considering their career path.

Even before starting college, many girls in high school are acutely aware of what they’re looking for in terms of culture and potential for advancement. If employers in tech fields can reflect those desires, they stand a much better chance of attracting a future workforce.

Educators, industry leaders, thought leaders: we all have a role to play in bringing girls and young women to STEM fields. If we pull it off, it will go a long way toward ensuring our economy remains competitive on the global stage.

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