When you think of a scientist, engineer, or mathematician – who do you think of? What do they look like? And, more importantly, why did you think of that particular kind of scientist? If you thought of a white, able-bodied, male scientist wearing a lab coat with glasses and crazy hair……you’re not alone.
Using the “draw a scientist” test, numerous research studies have analyzed the beliefs and stereotypes children have about scientists since the 1960’s (Terada, 2019). These studies show that:
- Initially, less than 1% of children drew female scientists, but this percentage increased to 28% on average in more recent studies (Terada, 2019).
- Girls are more likely than boys to draw female scientists. In 2016, 58% of girls drew female scientists whereas boys drew male scientists 90% of the time (Terada, 2019).
- As students get older, however, perceptions of scientists change and more students tend to draw male scientists (Terada, 2019).
Despite the efforts to promote equity in STEM in recent years, student’s perceptions of scientists have not significantly changed over the past several decades (Terada, 2019).
So, what is the status of women and minorities in STEM, how can we encourage them to pursue STEM, and what should STEM awareness look like in the science classroom?
Status of Women and Minorities in STEM
Although the science and engineering workforce has become more diverse, women and minority groups continue to be significantly underrepresented in these fields (AAUW, n.d., NGCP, 2020). This is substantiated by recent data, which shows that:
- Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce (NGCP, 2020)
- A “majority of STEM workers in the U.S. are white (69%), followed by Asians (13%), blacks (9%) and Hispanics (7%). Compared with their shares in the overall workforce whites and Asians are overrepresented; blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in the STEM workforce as a whole” (Funk & Parker, 2018).
Ways to Encourage People to Pursue STEM
Since 1990, the US has experienced a rapid transition to an information-based economy and, as a result, STEM employment has grown by a staggering 79% – outpacing all other occupations (Funk & Parker, 2018). Continued growth of the STEM-based economy requires a diverse workforce, which not only positively affects problem-solving and innovation, but also increases company revenues (Master’s in Data Science, 2020).
Women and minorities can be encouraged to pursue STEM occupations by:
- Dispelling commonly held beliefs and stereotypes held by children and young adults about who can pursue STEM (AAUW, n.d.,Terada, 2019).
- Providing mentorship, professional development, and career advancement for individuals both in the academic setting and in the workplace (AAUW, n.d.).
- Promoting more women and minorities to leadership roles and higher levels of management (AAUW, n.d.).
- Creating more flexible and inclusionary (and less male-centric) academic and workplace cultures that provide support for women and minorities (AAUW, n.d.).
- Closing the salary gap ($15,900 in 2013!!) between male and female professionals in STEM-related jobs (Ouimet, n.d.)
In this TEDx talk, Elaine Montilla explains the value of mentoring women and minorities in Tech
Promoting STEM Awareness and Equity in the Science Classroom
Teachers play an important role in encouraging students to pursue coursework and future career opportunities in STEM. To do so, teachers need to:
- Focus on learning the process of science. Taking an interdisciplinary, inquiry-based approach to science will equip students with the essential skills for the 21st century workplace (NOVA Education, 2016).
- Emphasize strong and visible role models and provide mentorship programs for girls and minorities who are underrepresented in STEM (AAUW, n.d.).
- Promote diversity in STEM by incorporating posters, books, and other classroom decorations that showcase women and minority scientists (Terada, 2019).
- Invite guest speakers into the classroom (in-person or virtually) to share their perspectives, experiences, and advice about careers in STEM (Terada, 2019).
- Increase awareness of higher education and career opportunities for women and minorities in STEM (AAUW, n.d.).
- Expand after-school and summer STEM opportunities for students, such as science clubs, workshops, field trips, etc. (AAUW, n.d.).
- Be mindful of gender bias in language and, as a teacher, avoid transferring your own anxiety about math or science to your students (Terada, 2019).
Real world application: After watching one of NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers videos on a scientist or engineer that interests them, students can 1) compare and contrast scientists’ stories with a partner, 2) examine their own beliefs and stereotypes about STEM, and 3) select an element of the story to research and present to the class. In doing so, students will envision themselves as scientists, mathematicians, or engineers (NOVA Education, 2016).
AAUW. (n.d.). The STEM Gap: Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. https://www.aauw.org/resources/research/the-stem-gap/
Funk, C. and Parker, K. (2018). Diversity in the STEM workforce varies widely across jobs. The Pew Research Center, Social and Demographic Trends. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/diversity-in-the-stem-workforce-varies-widely-across-jobs/
Kelly, L.B. (n.d.). Draw a Scientist: Uncovering students’ thinking about science and scientists. National Science Teaching Association. https://www.nsta.org/draw-scientist
Master’s in Data Science. (2020). A Guide for Minorities in STEM: Increasing Workplace Diversity. 2U, Inc. https://www.mastersindatascience.org/resources/a-guide-for-minorities-in-stem-increasing-workplace-diversity/
National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP). (2020). Statistics: K-12 Education.Top of Form https://ngcproject.org/statistics
NOVA Education (2016). How to Build STEM Career Awareness at Your School. WGBH Educational Foundation. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/how-to-build-stem-career-awareness-at-your-school/
Ouimet, M. (n.d.). 5 Numbers That Explain Why STEM Diversity Matters to All of Us. Wired. https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/05/5-numbers-explain-stem-diversity-matters-us/
Terada, Y. (2019). 50 Years of Children Drawing Scientists. George Lucas Educational Foundation, Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/50-years-children-drawing-scientists