Christina Wallace is the Founding Director of BridgeUp: STEM at the American Museum of Natural History. Nathalie Molina Nino is the co-Founder of Entrepreneurs@Athena at Barnard College and the Chief Revenue Officer of PowerToFly.
Three years ago, Jordyn Simmons enrolled in an Advanced Placement computer science class in her Houston public high school. She was the only girl and the only African-American student in the class. When Jordyn aced her midterm exam, her teacher responded not with praise, but with accusations of cheating. What’s most surprising—and inspiring—about Jordyn’s story is that she stuck with studying computer science. Many teenage girls don’t.
Jordyn, now 20, is a second-year computer science major at Barnard College. She has found a niche in the school’s Athena Digital Design Agency, a full-service Web design agency that builds websites and apps. Jordyn and the other young women in the program have learned to write code and design websites, all in a supportive environment that encourages the development of these skills.
Women and girls should not have to wait until college to get access to such resources. A study by the American Association of University Women found that among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20% of bachelor’s degrees. Women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and in the transition to the workplace.
Why is this happening? A 2012 study by the Girl Scouts of America points to three reasons: teenage girls often don’t feel welcome in STEM classrooms, they don’t see the connection between what they are learning in the classroom to the careers they want to pursue, and they don’t have role models for many STEM careers such as engineering or computer programming.
Creating STEM programming that engages girls earlier in their elementary and secondary-school education will help shift the classroom dynamic away from one that is majority boys and thus more welcoming to girls. Supporting interdisciplinary STEM projects—such as using computer programming in a science class to process or visualize a data set—will give students a better understanding of how these subjects are used in real life. Fostering career exploration activities will give some transparency to and highlight role models in careers that have high opportunity but are often less familiar to students.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s STEM Gateways Act would provide federal grants for programs in elementary school, middle school, and high school that would help create educational opportunities in STEM fields for girls, minorities, and children from all economic backgrounds. The STEM Gateways Act includes after-school opportunities, and supports career exploration and workforce training for high school students.
Right now, just a fifth of the federal dollars that are spent on STEM training goes toward funding training below an undergraduate degree. Yet, according to the 2013 Brookings report, “The Hidden STEM Economy,” as many as half of all STEM jobs are available without a four-year college degree. By supporting STEM career exploration and training during high school, students can make informed decisions about their next steps.
The Gillibrand bill isn’t a panacea—it doesn’t address the “leakiness” of the pipeline into STEM, where women and minorities drop out due to harassment or an unwelcoming environment—but it addresses the beginning of the pipeline and encourages more girls, minorities, and under-resourced youth to start down the path of choosing STEM careers. It is an investment in a future where more girls like Jordyn are given opportunities that could change their lives. The girls and young women of America deserve this. And so does our future workforce.