STEM innovations, especially those in engineering, are an essential part of our modern-day lives. These innovations impact us all, and cut across social, economic and geographical boundaries. Yet, at a time when engineers must meet the needs of a vast population of users with diverse opinions and backgrounds, the engineering workforce continues to suffer from gender disparity.
The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that women accounted for 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015. However, women only account for 24 percent of STEM jobs. And the percentage of women in STEM fields continues to be the lowest in engineering, with women representing just 15 percent of the workforce (NSF, 2018).
These are startling numbers — made even more striking given the range of STEM advocacy groups that making concerted efforts to increase female representation in engineering through programs that encourage women to enroll in engineering courses in high school, major in engineering in college and then go into the profession.
The problem, it seems, is that girls self-select out of engineering before these efforts even have a chance to be effective.
At a young age, girls internalize long-lasting stereotypes that tell them that boys are better at engineering and computer science, and that girls simply aren’t engineers. And during these formative years, they never have an opportunity to imagine themselves as engineers.
By the time we try to get young women involved in high school, their minds are already made up that engineering is not for them. Young women do not enroll in engineering-related secondary school courses at the same rates as young men, according to the 2018 National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators Report: About two and a half times (21 percent) as many male students earned engineering and technology credits in high school as compared to female (eight percent). This gender disparity is also apparent in AP courses. In computer science, 77 percent of exam-takers are male.
Then, when women go on to college, they do not select STEM majors at the rate of men: 44 percent of men elect a STEM major compared to 24 percent of women, and only 19.3 percent of engineering degrees are awarded to women.
If we are going to bring more women into engineering, we must start to reach out to them when they’re still young girls.
We know from our work in creating the Museum of Science’s Engineering Is Elementary curriculum, which has been used by more than 15 million elementary students and 190,000 educators across the country, that when given the opportunity and when exposed to engineering concepts, girls are just as successful as boys at understanding the engineering design process. Additionally, a five-year of study of those curricula funded by the National Science Foundation found that girls perform just as well as boys on engineering outcome measures. (Exploring the Efficacy of Engineering is Elementary (E4) NSF No. 1220305)
This data is reinforced by what we see everyday within the halls of the Museum of Science: Girls like engineering if they get a chance to learn it.
More than one million kids have participated in Engineering Design Challenges at the Museum. Our research has shown that when girls immerse themselves in our exhibits, they demonstrate confidence and sustained interest in solving engineering problems and express an interest in future engineering activities (Auster & Lindgren-Streicher, 2013).
If young girls have the aptitude for and interest in engineering when they are able to experience it, and yet they are still not pursuing it as they get into high school and beyond, it means we are simply missing them.
It’s incumbent upon all of us to introduce girls to engineering, in both informal and formal educational settings, during the very earliest years of schooling. We can’t wait until high school and hope to sway them. Rather, it is time we expand engineering education to all children, starting as early as preschool — and then support educators in doing so — so we can build a learning environment in which engineering is part of girls’ daily conversations. When we start young, we never allow the stereotypes to take root in girls. They learn that all students are natural problem solvers and that all students are engineers — especially girls.