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Gender gap in STEM careers persists, survey shows

Parents and mentors play crucial role in encouraging girls to enter the field

Graduate student in analytical chemistry Radhika Anaredy (left) talks to seventh-grader Jaycee Jurgens (second from right) as she and fellow seventh-grader Karlie Holton (right) and sixth-grader Kara Thomas (second from left) perform chemistry experiments to identify a mystery material during a “Crack the Case with Chemistry” session at Girls Go STEM at the University of Iowa Medical Education and Research Facility in Iowa City in February. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Graduate student in analytical chemistry Radhika Anaredy (left) talks to seventh-grader Jaycee Jurgens (second from right) as she and fellow seventh-grader Karlie Holton (right) and sixth-grader Kara Thomas (second from left) perform chemistry experiments to identify a mystery material during a “Crack the Case with Chemistry” session at Girls Go STEM at the University of Iowa Medical Education and Research Facility in Iowa City in February. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Despite state and national efforts, a gap remains in how many girls want to enter science, technology, engineering and math fields. Parents, teachers and mentors, though, are key in encouraging more girls to enter those fields.

A recent Junior Achievement and Ernst & Young survey showed that more than 90 percent of teenage boys and girls nationwide know the type of job they want. There was a gap, though, in how many boys — 36 percent — said they wanted to go into a non-medical STEM field, compared to girls, at just 11 percent.

“We really thought that, with such a focus on STEM careers and not necessarily targeted to anyone in particular, we thought there would be more of a balance between boys and girls. Surprisingly, there’s still that gap,” said Erin Kurt, vice president of district operations for Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa.

“In the (survey), what it shows is girls prioritize the ability to have a career and have family whereas boys prioritize in their dream job with flexibility and work schedule and career advancement."

- Erin Kurt

Vice president of district operations, Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa

Educators and others promoting careers in STEM have noted this before. They’ve pointed to gender stereotypes and girls being discouraged to enter fields traditionally seen as boys-only.

It also may have to do with what boys and girls want out of their careers.

“In the (survey), what it shows is girls prioritize the ability to have a career and have family whereas boys prioritize in their dream job with flexibility and work schedule and career advancement,” Kurt said.

A 2016 report from the Iowa Governor’s STEM Council found that males received 70 percent of degrees in STEM fields from Iowa’s four-year, public universities. A 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report, which found that while women fill about half of U.S. jobs, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.

Women do make up more of the STEM-related jobs in medical fields, however, reports showed.

In addition, interest among Iowa’s female students in STEM careers wanes as they get older, from 40 percent being interested in grades 3 through 5, but just 30 percent in grades nine through 11. Interest among male students, however, remains fairly steady.

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Boys and girls “seem to be about equal in terms of math and science in elementary school. Somewhere along the way, junior high and high school, that tends to drop off,” said Christine Cournoyer, a member of the Southeast Iowa STEM Region advisory board.

To help push more girls into STEM, parents should talk with their children and help them explore those fields through camps, classes and events. Teachers and mentors with STEM jobs also play a crucial role, especially if they are of the same gender and race as the student, Kurt said.

“Whether that’s a powerful female or a powerful male from that neighborhood, the kids need to see that because otherwise it’s always someone else,” she said.

Girls-only events, Cournoyer said, can help girls explore interests with their peers and build up the confidence to move into a mixed-gender group.

“Girls have a lot more opportunity than they ever had, we just need to grab them at a young age and we need to continue to nurture it through junior high and high school and even in college. Because it gets hard,” Cournoyer said.

Encouraging girls, or any student, to explore STEM careers is important, Kurt and Cournoyer said, because those skills will play a more prominent role in future jobs.

“If you want to get a decent job in the future, you’re going to have to have some STEM skills in your arsenal,” Cournoyer said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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