By Francesca Catalano
Faculty Director, School of STEM at American Public University
Much has been written about the lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The numbers are concerning. The speculation as to the many reasons contributing to the problem have been discussed and debated. It’s disheartening and discouraging.
As parents, educators, or STEM professionals we are often left with no clear direction as to how we can impact this problem. What can we do to help solve the lack of diversity in STEM fields? What are some realistic and achievable goals that will have a tremendous cumulative impact on attracting girls or women to STEM fields?
Getting involved seems like a good place to start, but how?
Start small means simple encouragement. If the girls in your life show an interest in STEM, nurture and support it. Take them to museums or buy science or technology themed toys. Empower them by demonstrating that science is genderless; point out the many contributions women have made over the years to STEM fields.
Engage Kids in the Conversation
Many girls today still have a low awareness of STEM and what professions are available to them in those fields. Help them understand that the professional possibilities within STEM fields are limitless; the jobs of tomorrow will be based in applied technology so a strong foundation in basic science and math are integral. Expose them to the possibilities.
Discuss the diversity problem. Try to understand, from their perspective, why they think girls don’t always embrace math and science. Recruit them to be a part of the solution by carefully considering their opinions and celebrating their interests.
Create the Solutions Yourself
There are many established programs that serve girls in STEM. So many, in fact, they often end up competing with each other for the limited funding opportunities or the volunteer efforts of activists. Not every school district has the resources and funds to promote all types of STEM activities.
A quick internet search will identify clearinghouses of programs all over the country that encourage girls to STEM fields, groups, and activities. Take a moment to research what opportunities are available in your community and enroll girls in worthwhile programs. Look for non-location dependent or web-based activities as well.
Engage Men in the Conversation
Changing the statistics requires meaningful dialogue and brainstorming with both men and women. Everyone should be aware of the challenges that exist and everyone should be involved in the solution.
Help, even if You Don’t Have Children
Be a mentor. For example, a recent study indicated that 29 percent of Millennials would like to meet someone in the cybersecurity field. Of those students that had met professionals in cybersecurity, 60 percent spent time talking to them about job opportunities.
Millennials use computers and smart phones constantly; tying that interest to careers in information technology may be obvious to you or me, but just may not be something that they have thought about.
Don’t rely on teachers and guidance counselors to do all the heavy lifting. In the United States, 55 percent of male students as well as 69 percent of female students indicated that no education professional had talked to them about cybersecurity jobs. Partner with neighborhood schools as a guest speaker or participate in a career day. Inspiring the next generation of professionals may reignite your passion for your field!
Don’t be overwhelmed and immobilized by the problem. Actively work to contribute to the solution.
About the Author: Francesca Catalano holds a doctorate in molecular biology from Loyola University Chicago and a law degree from DePaul College of Law. She is a Faculty Director and hiring manager for two programs in the school of STEM at American Public University System