The importance of role models in encouraging girls into STEM

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Currently, women are still massively underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries. This is caused by many reasons that are slowly being addressed by the industry, such as inflexible working hours restricting working parents, lack of support for women in STEM, the way we stereotype the characters of women in society and being discouraged (somewhat subconsciously) from a young age.

From a young age children absorb the information around them, shaping their view of the world, and even if they are not in direct contact with a strict reinforcer of gender roles, they will still pick these up from the wider environment. Most children will learn that boys need to be strong, powerful and financially responsible, whereas girls develop the idea that they need to assume a caring, submissive role. These gender traits can often limit girls in their self confidence and alter their perceptions of their own skills, this is called Stereotype Threat. Stereotype Threat is thought to underlie the consistent under-performance of girls in Maths and Science in comparison to boys in the UK (Simpkins and Davis-Kean, 2005). In fact, in countries where there still remains fairly prominent gender roles (such as in the UK and Turkey), girls will under perform in maths and science in comparison to boys; But in countries where there are more equal opportunities for boys and girls (such as in Iceland, Norway and Sweden), the gender gap between science and maths test results significantly reduces to almost no difference.

Another factor that appears to place a vital role in the participation of girls in STEM subjects is the presence of a female role model. When students are regularly exposed to a female role model who works in STEM industries, the negative attitudes towards women in STEM is improved. This also is thought to decrease the effect of Stereotype Threat on girls’ performance in these subjects, especially if the role model is someone they can identify with. Therefor, it is incredibly important for schools to utilise outreach projects available to ensure that there is periodical exposure to female role models. This will not only be beneficial for girls, but improve the opinions of boys as well.

So what can we do? We need to endeavour to reduce the exposure to gender stereotypes in society, to ensure children reach their full academic potential and are not hindered in their future careers by Stereotype Threat. We also need to make sure schools fully utilise STEM engagement programmes that are available, such as STEMNet. To ensure that not only are children exposed to the variety of career paths in science, but also girls can find role models that can assist them in achieving their career goals.