Organizations encouraging more girls to enter science careers

Posted Feb. 04, 2016, at 3:09 p.m.
Last modified June 08, 2017, at 4 p.m.

Presented by Maine School of Science and Mathematics

Men far outnumber women working in engineering and computer science careers, but there are a number of agencies and groups working to change that.

There are many reasons for the disparity, but the notion that girls just don’t “get” science and math is most definitely not one of them. Research shows unequivocally that girls have just as much aptitude for science and math as boys. The problem comes from social systems and cultural biases that encourage girls and young women to find careers in fields traditionally held by women.

Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard University, acknowledges the social pressures that discourage women from pursuing education and careers in science and technology. “If you keep telling girls they’re less good at science, that will probably be self-fulfilling. But there are quite a lot of women who are good at it,” she told Marie Claire magazine.

“If you look through the shelves of science books, you’ll find row after row of books written by men. This can be terribly off-putting for women,” said Randall, who was the first woman to be tenured as a physics professor at MIT and then at Harvard.

Why should more women work in science and engineering careers? Here’s President Barack Obama’s answer: “We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent . . . that is not being encouraged.”

In a 2015 research report, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) answered the question this way:  “The representation of women in engineering and computing matters. Diversity in the workforce contributes to creativity, productivity, and innovation. Everyone’s experiences should inform and guide the direction of engineering and technical innovation. In less than 10 years, the United States will need 1.7 million more engineers and computing professionals. We simply can’t afford to ignore the perspectives or the talent of half the population.”

More women in science and technology careers could also help close the gender wage gap. Women in science, math and tech jobs earn 33 percent more than women in other occupations.

Women are making progress in some careers that require math and science education. But according to the National Girls Collaborative Project and the National Science Foundation, female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (58 percent) and biological and medical sciences (48 percent) and relatively low shares in engineering (13 percent) and computer and mathematical sciences (25 percent).

Even though women make up 47 percent of the American workforce, just 15.6 percent of chemical engineers, 12.1 percent of civil engineers and 7.2 percent of mechanical engineers are women.

One of those female mechanical engineers, Debbie Sterling, in 2012 founded GoldieBlox, a toy company that makes toys to inspire a generation of future of women engineers. Other organizations, like the AAUW and the National Girls Collaborative Project, are sponsoring research about the disparities in the science and math workforce to encourage changes.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed a joint program with the Girls Scouts of America to create science, technology and engineering projects for girls.

Organizations like NASA recognize that women represent an untapped pool of science and technology talent. The agency wants to show girls that there are many rewarding opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math careers.

In Maine, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics holds summer camp programs each year to develop children’s interests in math and technology. The school is working to encourage more girls to attend its camp.