Michigan educators push for more science and math opportunities for girls

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Women in STEM introducing girls to engineering. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Agnes Bao
Capital News Service

The push is on in Michigan to increase gender diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

But gender imbalance in what are called the STEM fields isn’t easy to fix, experts say.

In 2016, Michigan had 639,405 STEM jobs, which is expected to increase by 11 percent over the next 10 years, according to the 2017 STEM and Innovation Report Card from the Alliance for Science and Technology in America, based in Washington, D.C.

Although job opportunities are increasing, only about 15 percent of female high school students expected to graduate in 2018 are interested in STEM fields, compared to 47 percent of male students, according to the report card.

Lots of STEM programs in the Kent Intermediate School District put efforts into increasing gender diversity and girls’ interests, said Allison Kaufman, the district’s director of communications and marketing.

One such program is Kent Girl Coders, which exposes girls to science by inviting guest speakers in the field, Kaufman said.

The program aims at inspiring girls’ interests in science and helping them succeed in traditionally male-dominated careers, according to the district.

“A much greater proportion of girls in middle school say they are interested in STEM, but they tend to lose that interest by time they reach high schools,” said Gary Farina, the executive director at the Michigan STEM Partnership, which promotes statewide STEM education and workforce development.

Some reasons girls lose interest in STEM fields include peer pressure, lack of confidence in their abilities in math and science, and low awareness of career opportunities, Farina said.

“There have to be greater efforts in terms of career counseling and other kinds of activities to address whatever the causes are for that,” he said.

To inspire and keep female students’ interests in STEM fields, Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences, a graduate student organization at Michigan State University, connects and exposes children in K-12 to physics.

The traditional social impression that “science is for boys” could be the another reason for the lack of gender diversity in STEM fields, said Terri Poxon-Pearson, the organization’s president.

“Girls don’t learn to identify as ‘good’ at science or math and ‘leak’ out of the STEM pipeline,” Poxon-Pearson said.

The overall number of women physics majors and grad students has stalled at about 20 percent, and it seems hard to push past that percentage.

The Kent Career Tech Center also faces a gender imbalance problem in certain STEM fields and is trying to recruit nontraditional students in those areas, said John Kraus, the principal of the center.

“Our diesel technology program probably has 98 percent males, and the information technology program also has many males,” Kraus said. “Our overall percentage of students across the center is probably about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.”

To increase gender balance in STEM areas, Kraus suggested bringing women representatives in those areas to meet students at an early age to break gender stereotypes.

Inforum, a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids and Detroit, provides female role models to existing STEM programs for K-12 and post-secondary girls, as well as young women.

“We believe that exposure to successful women in STEM can help give girls and young women the confidence to prepare for STEM careers,” said Cindy Goodaker, the organization’s vice president of signature programs and communications.

After inspiring more girls to get into STEM fields, a further challenge is giving them the support to stay there, experts said.

“Many workplaces, particularly in academia, do not have well-defined, or very supportive, parental leave policies, which disproportionately disadvantage women in the field,” Poxon-Pearson said.

Most women in STEM workplaces have also experienced gender discrimination, according to a Pew Research Center national study conducted in 2017.

“Women are given less support, and have to ask more often than men for raises and promotions,” Goodaker said.

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