“Any questions?” asked Mrs. Scott, my AP Computer science teacher. Her blank face seemed to take no notice of the irregularity of the situation. She had just situated my class into groups for our next project, and at this moment, the reality was blaring at me. We had been seated in groups of three: two boys and a girl sandwiched between them. The issue was that the majority of these groups had no girls at all. The room was male-dominated, and I seemed to be the only one to find that a problem.
While the male to female ratio in the room was a cause for immediate concern, it was more alarming as a symptom for the greater ailment of gender disparity. As I’ve progressed through my educational career, I’ve noticed the number of girls steadily decreasing in classes of STEM fields (science, technology, math, and engineering). During middle school, the art club became a much bigger draw-in for my female classmates than the math team. And this gradual decline in female involvement isn’t a new trend. As students move from grade school to higher-level institutions and careers, the percentage of women in STEM takes a steep decline. Even if they take up entry-level jobs at tech companies, few rise through the ranks over time. Only quite recently have women executives become commonplace at top technology companies like Microsoft and Facebook. For every Sheryl Sandburg, there are a thousand young women who never even complete engineering programs.
In the United States, for example, women earn only about 35 percent of the undergraduate degrees in STEM, a number that has remained unchanged for the past decade, even though they account for almost 60 percent of college graduates. — Brookings, March 2017
In part, this failure of the American school system stems from its patriarchal nature. Traditionally, males were allowed to compete in extracurriculars, sports and had more opportunities to succeed in academics. Their potential was taken more seriously compared to their female peers. Compared to public education’s longevity, only fairly recently have women truly gained an equal footing in society and education. As a result, continued reliance on the traditional framework is an outdated notion, not accounting for the changes in ethnic make-up and gender-identity of America today. As a computer science student, the gender chasm was vividly evident to me, so why were school systems failing to solve the problem? With the various nonprofits and grants working for a common cause, why was gender inequity still a reality?
As I worked through these questions, I found the beginnings of an answer in my own experience. I was fortunate enough to discover my passion for STEM early on in middle school and go to a school that heavily supported students by funding competitions, transportation and providing teacher-mentors, despite not being a magnet/STEM school. When it came time for freshman advisory, I joined my school’s Talented Young Mathematicians’ Program (TYMP) and again found myself among mostly male peers.Day after day of scribbling to finish math problems and collaborating to think through logic puzzles created close bonds, especially among the small group of girls. During these math-focused activities and contests, however, boys consistently tended to perform better, and many of my female peers felt discouraged. A lot of their anxiety centered around their intelligence and abilities being doubted by our male peers, a remnant of traditionally being dismissed in academics. Eventually, they seemed to lose interest entirely: spending hours dedicated to sports, getting involved in the arts, or working to serve others. Despite the supportive community we had created as peers in advisory, girls were still demoralized from continuing STEM-related activities because they didn’t feel like they couldn’t keep up. As a competitive and determined student, I still found it tough to keep fighting when the coveted two spots for the traveling team were taken up by boys time after time. The almost perfect score on my trials to get onto the team seemed to mock me. Luckily, my passion for physics bore fruit where my math efforts seemed to spoil, and I continued with STEM. Some of the girls I had bonded with in TYMP, however, had dropped out of STEM entirely. Somehow this opportunity to explore our love for STEM had turned into a repellant that leached away that same love and pushed us away.
I was shocked into re-evaluating my school’s STEM opportunities. My high school is by no means low-funded, and the administration had dedicated resources and time to ensure that all students, regardless of gender, had the same access to STEM. It was not an issue of opportunity. Re-examining the situation, I think what happened was representative of a larger issue with our education system — how we think about equality. Somehow the education system equated equal opportunity with equal chance for success, but the truth is that the latter can only happen when education can provide every student with what they need as individuals to succeed in their circumstances. Why have we made gender inequality synonymous with gender inequity? How schools use their resources to encourage female involvement is just as important as how schools use funding to create STEM opportunities.
Students, teachers, and administration need to start the conversation of assessing the efficacy of their STEM programs when it comes to the gender gap. And if there’s a lack of STEM opportunities to begin with, schools need to be designing programs with equity as a focus. Hopefully, STEM classrooms across America will transform from isolated cloisters where men far outnumber women into welcoming havens for both genders. Someday, generations of girls like me will no longer be the only woman in the room.