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Lack of female role models undermining STEM career paths

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Role models have a great impact on one’s life choices. Teenagers who have positive role models have greater self-esteem and perform better in school than teenagers without role models in their lives, according to research. One will try to follow a role model’s footsteps, which can be done both consciously and unconsciously.

When you think of famous engineers, how many women come to mind? Probably only a few if any. Among Forbes’ top 100 CEO’s there’s only one female engineer. One has to be well-informed about the field to be able to name public figures and that is an issue because expanding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) would be crucial to meet the demand on the labor market. But not only public figures can be role models, also teachers are typically people who can inspire young students to pursue a certain career, they have an influence on their students’ life choices.

Root of STEM’s research, which was conducted across 270 high schools, showed that on average 63% of the math and science teachers were women (68% of the math teachers and 56 % of the science teachers were women) compared to 80% women teachers in all subjects in the state of North Carolina. As we can see, even though more than half of the teachers are female, female representation is proportionally lower than in other subjects.

Currently, only 13% of practicing engineers are women and this can result in a downward spiral: the smaller the number of female engineers, the lower the chance is of one of those to become successful and become a role model to others, which again lowers the chances of women entering the field.

Women are not under-represented in Engineering because they are capable of less than men, quite the contrary: in their first semester of college men earn lower GPAs and credits largely because they enter college with lower non-cognitive skills, captured by lower high school grades. After the first semester, males fall further behind their female counterparts. The issue is more complex than that.

The percentage of women in STEM is a result of many factors: different expectations for boys and girls, boys are encouraged more to pursue STEM fields, a lack of women role models, and/or discriminatory environments. In high school, 66% of girls interested in STEM know someone who works in the field, which proves that role models do have a significant impact. These girls were exposed to STEM and apparently gained interest in the field. In order to stop the previously presented cycle related to role models, initiatives need to be taken and there have been quite a few approaches to doing so.

There are numerous women all girls and young women can look up to, who are successful, happy and achieved something admirable. Recently a book with the title “STEM GEMS” has been published in order to “give girls and young women role models in STEM, and open their eyes to a world of opportunity!” as stated on their website. The book contains stories of 44 inspiring women in 44 diverse STEM careers and explains how they made it.

Another great example of helping students enter engineering is EiE, Engineering is Elementary. The curriculum developed by the Museum of Science, Boston help elementary school teachers conduct engineering workshops which introduces Engineering to students, making them more familiar with its advantages and excitements. Once girls have developed an interest for engineering, one can hope they will want to learn and read more about it. With a little effort they can easily find successful female engineers, for example, a playlist on the well-known TEDx is dedicated to talks from women transforming STEM.

Since our everyday life if becoming more and more technology and machine based, to assume that engineers will be in demand is logical. It is in everyone’s best interest to have more female engineers. If you want to find out more about why girls might be dis-encouraged to choose engineering and what can be improved, take a look at this infographic!


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About Molly Connell

Molly Connell is responsible for Online Marketing at TradeMachines. As a member of the Berlin-based, fast-growing online start-up - the search engine for used machinery - her job is to enhance brand awareness and visibility.

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