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How can we overcome gender bias in STEM education?

By Rebecca Meyer

Isis Wenger, creator of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign
How do we engage women in productive science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers when stereotypes run so deep? A recent ad campaign by a company recruiting engineers ignited a social media dialogue about sexism in the tech industry and what people believe engineers should look like. One of the ads featured a female engineer, which elicited sexist comments in social media.

The engineer, Isis Wenger, shares her thoughts about the backlash and her experience by launching the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign. This is an important conversation on gender bias and its influence on STEM learning.

We often talk about the STEM pipeline: If we can just get youth interested STEM and incrementally grow their knowledge, the plumbing will pull them toward opportunities in STEM careers. But research points out that it is not as simple as getting people in the pipeline. A 2011 report indicated women make up 50% of the workforce, but hold less than 25% of STEM positions. And, only one in seven engineers is female. Research also points out that the pipeline may be particularly problematic for women.

This summer the National Academies Press published a report on “Identifying and Supporting Productive STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings” outlining criteria to identify effective STEM programs. These will be beneficial as we continue to move forward and design STEM opportunities for youth. But, this campaign #ilooklikeanengineer provides insights into significant issues confronting our national effort to accomplish the goal of a prepared STEM work force. It appears we may have to acknowledge, and confront with our young participants, some particularly deep-seated stereotypes about 'who' is a scientist and engineer. We may need to grow in them the capabilities to overcome these historic beliefs about scientific professions.

This is complex. I’m interested in your thoughts on what we can do in our informal STEM programming to shift the paradigm. What are strategies we can employ to help youth and adults overcome these stereotypes?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. It is imperative that kids see people who look like them in these careers. They also need to grow up feeling like they are STEM professionals. We recently completed a program with an informal evaluation in which youth completed the statement "I am a scientist because..." and the answers were stunning!

  2. Thanks for joing the discussion, Amy. I agree with you that we need to include mentors and role models as one strategy. I'm curious, can you share any common themes that emerged from the youth responses that could help inform potential strategies? It seems like responses may hint at youth motivation and that is incredibly important.

    What are other strategies that should be considered when designing STEM programs to overcome this bias?


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