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Research Says Girls Are Still Losing Interest in STEM Subjects as They Get Older – The Question is Why

Million Women Mentors, the National Girls Collaborative Project, Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code — only a handful of the many organizations that have popped up to encourage women and girls to get into STEM subjects and careers. It’s a response to an enduring gender gap in tech, with a World Economic Forum report indicating that women account for only 20 percent of computer and mathematical jobs. Worse, there’s reason to believe the problem will become more dire — the WEF expects that in the decades to come, STEM jobs will increase at the expense of jobs in other sectors, a worldwide shift that will lead to an increase in unemployment for women under the current conditions.

This week, Microsoft released the results of a study they performed with KRC research that indicated that the interest gap isn’t closing. Earlier this year, researchers surveyed 6,009 girls and women aged 10 to 30 in the United States, complete with interviews and focus groups to get a sense of the stories behind the numbers.

The study found persistently low rates of women and girls thinking that coding jobs are for them, despite over 50 percent of those surveyed saying they feel powerful doing STEM. Most striking, as you can see in the graph below, is the plunge in women who feel like they know how to pursue STEM careers once they leave high school.

Could entrenched social norms surrounding STEM subjects be responsible? The study suggests that's the case. 72 percent of girls said it was important for them to have a job that helps the world and 91 percent described themselves as creative, but 40 percent of girls don't see how STEM is relevant to their lives, with some survey respondents saying that STEM jobs didn't seem like creative outlets. However, the study says those attitudes changed dramatically when they were given examples of STEM jobs and told of specific women in STEM jobs, suggesting that more role models would go a long way toward dispelling some of the myths about STEM subjects.

But, there are indications that the actions of organizations that support interest in STEM matter. Girls were more excited by STEM if they had participated in hands-on activities, which could include coding challenges or simple robotics projects. The survey said that girls who received encouragement from both parents and teachers and knew a woman in a STEM career were much more confident and willing to pursue their own careers in STEM, as well.

An article published in The Atlantic last month puts an unexpected twist on the issue. That article observed studies that show that women in affluent countries with more gender equality are less likely to pursue STEM careers than women living in countries with far greater gender inequality — 41 percent of STEM graduates in Algeria are women, compared to a little over 20 percent in Norway. The research lays out the argument that women in more well-off countries have the freedom to choose not to pursue STEM, while women faced with greater inequality see STEM as a reliable pathway to a stable income and independence.

If that argument is true, the United States certainly still has lessons to learn from it. While the United States is in the better half of countries in terms of the gender gap, the problem still exists, and exists alongside protracted economic inequality in general. If STEM jobs are pathways to stable careers — and the WEF study suggests they will continue to be into the future — then there's no limit to the number of girls in the United States who could find STEM to be an economic lifeline for them and their families. And all they might need is someone to tell them they can do it, and how.

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