Suppose your daughter spends hours cleaning up her bedroom. Unlikely, I know, but bear with me. Suppose she organizes the clothes in her dresser using cardboard to divide each drawer into rectangles of varying sizes, separating her socks from her underwear, her soccer shirts from her soccer shorts. Suppose she organizes her desk, re-purposing an old toy carousel to create a spinning desk caddy that holds all her pens and pencils. Most parents would be eager to praise their daughter’s hard work and perhaps comment on how nice and pretty her room looks. But this is also a great opportunity to recognize the complex math and engineering skills she utilized to accomplish these tasks. There’s geometry and spatial reasoning in the way she organized her drawers. Also, she used an engineering design process to create her new desk caddy, testing for function and balancing the weight so the caddy would spin evenly.
Helping our daughters recognize the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in their daily lives, even in tasks that seem mundane, is just one of the ways we can support and encourage girls’ interests and abilities in STEM studies. Many young girls, even very bright girls, just don’t think of themselves as being good at science or math and they may not yet know what engineering means. Many girls may have misconceptions, based on what they see in movies and on television, that technology fields like computer science are just for boys and men. Understanding the obstacles girls may face as they learn about STEM topics can help parents become better advocates for their young, gifted daughters.
Females are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the U.S. Department of Education, high school boys are much more likely than girls to enroll in challenging STEM courses such as AP calculus, AP statistics, and AP physics (U.S. Department of Education 2012). In college, young women are a minority in STEM majors; for example, recent studies show only 17% of bachelor degrees in engineering were earned by women (St. Rose 2010). After college, women are less likely than men to work in well-paying STEM careers. While women represent 48% of the total workforce, only 24% of STEM jobs are held by women (Beede 2011).
Obstacles that keep girls from engaging in STEM learning are complex and challenging. One factor may be that girls are less willing than boys to take risks and make mistakes in an academic environment, a characteristic that may hinder learning in STEM subjects. For example, Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, has observed that girls are more likely than boys to perceive their intellectual gifts as static and fixed, and that this perception can become an obstacle to girls’ growth and learning, especially in STEM classrooms (Dweck 2006). Bright girls, especially those who are high achievers and perceive themselves to be academically gifted, become more easily discouraged than boys when faced with confusion and challenges. Dweck concludes that girls are vulnerable to a loss in confidence because they believe being smart is a gift they are born with rather than an ability that has been earned.
As parents, we can help our daughters become more resilient and flexible learners by reassuring her that learning is a process and by modeling how we respond to our own mistakes. When you are talking or working together, on homework or chores, let her know you value the problem-solving process and assure her that we learn much more from our mistakes than our successes. When she comes home from school, ask, “What exciting mistakes did you make today?” The next time you wreck a home improvement project by buying the wrong tool, or ruin dinner with a disaster on the grill, instead of cursing and berating yourself, use it as an opportunity to show your daughter how to gracefully rethink and recover from a messy mistake.
This blog post is an excerpt from an article describing my “Girl Power” session at the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children) annual conference in November 2014.
Beede, David et al. “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation” Executive Summary. Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. ESA Issue Brief #04-11, August 2011.
Dweck, Carol A. “Is Math a Gift? Beliefs that Put Females at Risk.” In S.J. Ceci & W. Williams (Eds.); Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2006.
St. Rose, Andresse. “STEM Major Choice and the Gender Pay Gap.” On Campus With Women. Association of American Colleges & Universities. Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 2010.
U.S. Department of Education. “Gender Equity in Education: A Data Snapshot.” Civil Rights Data Collection. June 2012.