Lisa V. Sellers, PhD, is CEO of Vector Laboratories.
Despite our progress in eliminating gender discrimination in the workplace over the past few decades, gender inequality continues to permeate the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industries. Although women earn 58% of all bachelor’s degreesthey represent only 24% of engineering sciences, 21% of computer science and 24% of physics bachelor’s degrees. This inequality is especially prevalent at the top of management structures; only in biotechnology 23% of CEOs identify as female.
As the factors that keep this gender gap alive become more difficult to pinpoint and address, finding ways to foster interest and confidence in STEM subjects among young girls can lay a foundation for achieving equality in these sectors.
The obstacles to equality Start young
The body of research explaining the persistence of gender disparity in STEM careers points to the prevalence of gender stereotypes, fewer role models, and “the confidence gap” as contributing factors. As a mentor to young girls in the Bay Area, I believe we can address several of these obstacles with education and encourage young girls and women to pursue engineering and science studies.
Achieving that goal starts with breaking down the gender bias that begins in elementary schools and in out-of-cycle programs like summer camps. For example, I’ve noticed that summer camps that offer extended project-based camps focused on STEM often have themes that are predominantly boys-oriented. These camps offer tech projects focused on dinosaurs, Minecraft, or war games like building a catapult or fortifying castle walls to withstand a medieval siege. If girls are interested in fashion, princesses or baby dolls, for example, they are all too often relegated to craft camps.
Recently, I was excited to see a Bay Area camp offering not only Pokemon and Star Wars STEM camps, but also Disney Princess themed options. This initiative is the type we should see much more often to get all young children involved in science and engineering. Expanding the themes of STEM summer camps to accommodate children’s diverse interests makes these fields fun and inspiring for a larger group. Cinderella’s castle walls also need reinforcement.
Business leaders can get involved in these types of programs to increase involvement in STEM topics and develop community connections. As a first step, leaders may want to consider reaching out to local community centers. Many of these centers offer year-round recreation programs for children of all ages and usually offer summer camps for young children.
Connect with the program directors and offer to be a resource. In my experience, building relationships and developing a shared understanding of capabilities and needs comes first, after which the partnership can grow into concrete actions.
Break stereotypes before they start
By introducing STEM at an early age, in a fun way, and through more diverse themes, we can slowly level the playing field for girls and boys when gender stereotypes are first introduced. a Yale University study A 2021 study found that children as young as six already believe in gender stereotypes, while girls as young as eight or nine already base the interests they explore on these stereotypes.
Making these topics more universal at a young age could weaken the power of gender stereotypes at this fundamental time. These tactics can also help girls build confidence in their abilities, which can encourage them to pursue STEM as a career.
Regardless of whether girls and boys decide to pursue STEM careers, all fields of work benefit from employees at all levels of the organization with different backgrounds, experiences, ways of communicating and problem-solving tactics. STEM is no different: a well-rounded education supports success in all careers. Pursuing a STEM education, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree, professionals learn the problem-solving skills that will enable them to take any path within the biotech and high-tech fields, both of which will be rich in job opportunities now and in the future.
Reach girls of all ages
As individuals, we can engage children in fun ways to build confidence in these areas and reverse the belief that women are somehow not naturally inclined to math and science. On a larger scale, the biotech industry and other STEM industries can also increase their efforts to not only mentor women pursuing their undergraduate degrees, but also girls in high school.
For example, in Newark, California, where my company is headquartered, our team made contacts through the local chamber of commerce. This contact put us in contact with leaders in the community, including in education. High schools will have science teachers and may also have program leaders for biotech tracks or for programs to support students from specific socioeconomic backgrounds, especially students interested in STEM industries. Business leaders can connect with these education leaders to build a partnership to influence students, especially girls, in high school.
This work with local high schools can be as involved as a leader’s bandwidth allows. The partnership could be as simple as talking to girls about the career paths of female employees, or bigger lifts like inviting students to the office and setting up a panel of female employees to talk about careers and a typical day at a biotech company.
In addition, high schools often work to create internship programs that can involve groups of students for just a few hours a week. These internships don’t have to have the same intensity and time commitment as a college or graduate level program, making them a smaller investment for companies with a high impact for students.
Through sustained, deliberate efforts to break stereotypes and build trust in girls as individuals and as an industry, we can make lasting change.