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STEM'ing the Tide of Gender Disparity

Though great strides have been made to attract more women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, there’s still room for improvement, according to educators and industry experts. Across the United States, schools, civic organizations, non-profits and oil and gas companies are working to encourage girls and women of all ages to enter STEM fields.

“There continue to be many challenges attracting women and historically unrepresented groups to STEM majors and fields.”

That’s Tricia Berry, who leads efforts to recruit and graduate women from the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. As director of the Women in Engineering Program as well as a board member of the Association of Women in Energy, she works to support and connect organizations that are working toward greater gender parity in the STEM fields.

Addressing the Culture

One of the many challenges she and others mentioned are negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math and science, which Berry said can adversely affect test performance, decisions with regard to class choice and course of study, as well as girls’ and womens’ assessment of their own abilities.

Girls, Berry said, often have fewer opportunities to develop spatial skills through toys like legos involving block and construction plans, 3-D video games and other means, which can lead to trouble with STEM coursework as they get older because the skills were not developed at a young age.

Additionally, many of the role models in STEM fields are male, which gives a limited and limiting view to girls and young women regarding possible STEM-related career opportunities, she said.

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Though great strides have been made to attract more women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, there’s still room for improvement, according to educators and industry experts. Across the United States, schools, civic organizations, non-profits and oil and gas companies are working to encourage girls and women of all ages to enter STEM fields.

“There continue to be many challenges attracting women and historically unrepresented groups to STEM majors and fields.”

That’s Tricia Berry, who leads efforts to recruit and graduate women from the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. As director of the Women in Engineering Program as well as a board member of the Association of Women in Energy, she works to support and connect organizations that are working toward greater gender parity in the STEM fields.

Addressing the Culture

One of the many challenges she and others mentioned are negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math and science, which Berry said can adversely affect test performance, decisions with regard to class choice and course of study, as well as girls’ and womens’ assessment of their own abilities.

Girls, Berry said, often have fewer opportunities to develop spatial skills through toys like legos involving block and construction plans, 3-D video games and other means, which can lead to trouble with STEM coursework as they get older because the skills were not developed at a young age.

Additionally, many of the role models in STEM fields are male, which gives a limited and limiting view to girls and young women regarding possible STEM-related career opportunities, she said.

“And the ‘geek’ persona is not attractive to a wide variety of women and girls we need to engage in STEM,” she added.

Programs like Women in Engineering help to change that by putting the focus on girls and women. Pre-college outreach programs are also numerous, including DiscoverE’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and Girlstart After School.

Industry Involvement

Oil and gas companies are making efforts, from outreach programs designed to excite young girls about STEM subjects to creating flexible work environments and improving the climate and culture of an office to make it more hospitable and supportive to all employees.

Oklahoma-based Devon Energy has partnered with the Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma to offer kits that include STEM-related activities. Girls who complete the activities receive a STEM patch.

The initiative, which was launched last year, was created in partnership between the Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma and several Devon geologists and engineers, said John Porretto, spokesman for Devon Energy.

The kits are designed for girls in kindergarten through eighth grade and so far, more than 1,400 girls have participated, according to Holly Johns Rowland, fund development manager at Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma.

“We’re all aware of the gender gap in STEM careers: only 20 percent of young women intend to major in a STEM field in college, compared to 50 percent of young men,” Rowland said. “Subtleties of society and culture reflect the stereotype that girls are not good at or suited for math and science and unconsciously discourage girls.”

Girl Scouts seeks to empower young girls and teach them that they are every bit as prepared to take on a STEM-related career as boys, she said. Girls spend more of their lives hearing they are not as good at math and science as boys and that they shouldn’t get dirty.

“Social psychological research shows that these stereotypes have negative consequences,” Rowland explained. “It’s possible that girls are internalizing this stereotype and talking themselves out of achieving in math and science when, in reality, they are doing just as well or better than boys.”

Progress So Far

So are the efforts working?

In some ways, yes, said Berry.

In 2015, 47 percent of high school students who took the Advanced Placement calculus test were female, while 22 percent of AP computer science test-takers were female, according to data from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

“We still have few women in fields such as electrical engineering and physics, while the percentages are much greater in biology, chemical engineering and biomedical engineering,” Berry said. “Retention of women in STEM fields in college typically mirrors that of male peers. And yet we continue to lose women in the workplace.”

That could soon change.

Earlier this year, several oil companies signed a pact in Davos, Switzerland, to work to close the gender gap in the oil and gas industry. According to data from the World Economic Forum, less than 20 percent of workers in the oil and gas industry around the world are women, and only 10 to 15 percent in senior-level positions are female.

The pact is based on two main goals: recruiting a more gender-diverse workforce and opening up all jobs in the organization to women.

The priorities include developing gender-sensitive work-life balance policies, inclusive corporate culture and setting and maintaining goals and objectives for gender diversity.

Improved gender diversity is an important business move, the declaration states.

“This is good for our people, good for our stakeholders, and good for our business,” it reads.

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