We were curious about what the school-aged interviewees would say about the possibility of a girl pursuing a career in a STEM field.
First, we asked students a series of questions about different subjects. We asked how they felt about math, science and ELA. Their responses more or less held to gender stereotypes, except for one.
All of the students liked science, regardless of age group or gender. One student mentioned that they liked “the experiments we do” in science, though it was not our goal to explore why each student liked the subject.
We were interested in seeing who the students thought of as scientists, and we asked them to draw one. We were careful to not use any gender pronouns while asking this question so as not to influence their thinking one way or another.
Despite the fact that all of the girls stated that they enjoyed science as a subject, all but two of them drew their scientists as male, or identified them using the masculine pronoun.
Not knowing for certain the root of this drawing, we then asked the students how they would change their drawing for different professions. Students were asked what they would change about their drawing if it were a mathematician, a computer programmer, an engineer or a kindergarten teacher. Many of them would not have drastically changed the appearance of their scientist to fit the other professions, except for the kindergarten teacher.
Of the 8 students who drew the scientist as male, 6 indicated that the sex of their kindergarten teacher would be female, either by explicitly stating it or by using the feminine pronoun. All of the male students chose to change their drawing from a male scientist to a female kindergarten teacher, indicating that there is potentially a link in male minds between profession and gender roles, though we did not explore this in our study.
Finally, students were asked about what professions they could potentially have in the future. The results are shown below.
Our female respondents all thought that they could pursue a career as a scientist, mathematician, or computer programmer. We did not ask the students if they thought they could be a kindergarten teacher, though two of the female participants did state that they would like to pursue education as a career choice.
While our findings seemed to corroborate gender stereotypes in certain careers, our female participants appeared to show the ability to see themselves with a future in STEM careers. More in depth interviews might lead to stronger evidence, but were outside of the scope of this project.
When we started researching this topic, we theorized that girls must not believe they can pursue STEM careers because they were females, and those were seen more as “boy jobs.” However, our interviews revealed that the girls believed they could enter these professions, even more so than the boys did (note in the above graphic that none of the boys thought they could be scientists).
Despite the stated possibility of entering the careers shown above, many of the girls in our study, when prompted to draw a scientist, engineer or mathematician depicted them as men. This could mean that young women in the United States, generally, may not see themselves, or women, as members of STEM fields. The reasons why they may believe this were not investigated.
Women With & Without STEM Careers
As a part of our research, we also interviewed four adult women (three who currently work in STEM fields and one who does not). The participants included a chiropractor, an architect a mechanical engineer and an elementary school teacher. We hoped that through our interviews, we would gain some insight as to why they did or did not choose a career in a STEM field.
We found that all three of the women who currently work in a STEM field performed very well in math and science in school. They all identified math as one of their favorite subjects and all had positive views of math and science when they were in school.
Unlike the women in STEM fields, our participant who does not work in a STEM related career, describes herself as doing just “okay” in school with no real interest in math or science.
All four participants seemed to be led to their current career by an external force, whether that be a parent or a career test. We also found that our participants who are in a STEM career identified themselves as confident students when they were in school, whereas our participant in a non-STEM career identified herself as an unconfident student.
Our participants working in STEM fields indicated that they have faced challenges working in male dominated fields. They describe having to work twice as hard to prove themselves in a world where it’s difficult for them to be taken seriously.
In summary, it seems that the women who ended up pursuing careers in STEM related fields were also the young girls in school who were confident, performed well, and enjoyed math and science. Further studies would have to be conducted with a larger population to confirm the validity of this trend.
Advice for young women pursuing a STEM career from a women currently working in a STEM career:
“You have to want to make a difference for your daughters – that was the best advice a former coworker told me. Be professional, have a thick skin, and do not take anything personally. That’s nearly impossible sometimes, you’ll want to scream – but don’t. Find resolve in what you know or believe you are good or exceptional at and keep pushing.”
Possible Avenues of Future Research
Many of our student participants indicated a desire, or at least the possibility, to pursue a career in a STEM-related field. Research done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, suggests that many of the female participants of our study will lose the interest in these fields sometime during college. A longitudinal study of these participants through their college years could begin to paint a clearer picture of why they are doing this.
At least one of our participants mentioned that their future career choices were influenced by pop culture. A study on the effects of pop culture on gender stereotyping and career prospects could also yield intriguing results and guide future endeavors to recruit young women into STEM fields through representation of girls and young women in these fields in the media.