Women have historically been responsible for some of the greatest achievements in science, technology, engineering and math—from the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge to writing the first computer code. Unfortunately, women’s accomplishments have been limited by gender bias that persists today—even among well-intentioned parents and educators.
With Women’s History Month being celebrated now in March, this is a great opportunity to both honor women’s achievements in STEM as well as reflect on how we start eliminating these biases.
Without a doubt, our attitudes toward equal opportunity among the sexes have come a long way in recent decades. However, many parents and educators still let traditional gender stereotypes influence the way they treat girls. In fact, one survey found that parents were more likely to discuss an acting career than a STEM career with their daughters by a 2-to-1 margin.
Providing girls with positive exposure to STEM fields from an early age is critical if we want to keep them interested in the subject. A recent study by the Girl Scouts of America Research Institute found that girls who knew someone working in the STEM field, or who were exposed to STEM activities, were more likely to have an interest in STEM.
This is something I can personally relate to. My fondest memories about growing up are the Saturdays I spent with my father, a marine engineer, at his office. He designed complex electrical systems that kept some of the world’s most massive ships humming. This early exposure was enough for me to develop an interest in STEM that eventually propelled me into software engineering.
Unfortunately, gender bias means many girls do not receive the exposure that I did. This has resulted in a workforce where women only make up a quarter of STEM employees, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce—a figure that has been shrinking in recent years. In high-demand, growing fields like computer science and software engineering, women make up even lower percentages.
The first step to solving the problem begins with awareness. We must first be aware that these biases continue to exist at home and in the classroom and understand their impact. We must also pay close attention to our own actions and reflect on the ways we interact with and evaluate girls and determine what unconscious signals we might be sending.
When we do this, we may notice patterns in our own behavior that we may have been unaware of. Once we identify these patterns, we can begin working to change them and ensure the girls are equally encouraged when it comes to pursuing STEM.
It benefits us all when both halves of the human population are working to solve the biggest challenges in fields like computer science, physics, environmental engineering and medicine.
Monica Nicolau is chief technology officer for Sylvan Learning. Prior to Sylvan, Ms. Nicolau worked at Micros Systems, Inc., now Oracle Hospitality, where she held a variety of roles, including director of software engineering. She earned her master’s degree in computer science at Johns Hopkins University.