Young women avoid STEM careers due to negative images, stereotypes

Ginger Wange, STEM Development Manager for PBS Kids' SciGirls, explained that women are perceived and projected in the media as being bad at math and science, and this reinforced stereotype has discouraged young girls from pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers at the 2014 Women in Manufacturing Summit. See 7 tips to keep young girls interested in math and science.
By Joy Chang September 30, 2014

Ginger Wange, the creator of PBS Kids' SciGirls, explained in a speech at the Women in Manufacturing Summit how women are perceived as being bad at math and how this lessens their desire to pursue challenging math and science subjects. Courtesy: Joy ChangGinger Wange, the STEM Development Manager for PBS Kids’ SciGirls, stressed the importance of media’s influence on young girls perceptions of STEM careers at the 2014 Women in Manufacturing Summit in Schaumburg, Ill. "Media has great impact on people’s beliefs and behaviors. To change how millions of girls think about STEM, we need to change the way media portray women." STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.

In today’s media, there are very few female role models that have science or math-related careers. As a result, Wange said, young girls growing up admiring women solely in the entertainment or fashion industry. Women are perceived as being bad at math, they are incapable, hysterical, whiners, princesses, and eye candy, she suggested. This results in the negative self-perception of young girls and lessen their desire to invest in challenging math and science courses.

According to Wange, girls perform better than boys in science and math subjects until fifth grade. Their interest drops dramatically due to the lack of support and the fear of failing. Girls and boys do not display different abilities in math and science but rather different interests and confidence, which links to negative self-perception.

Prompted to avoid difficulties

"Girls are told to drop the science and math interests to secure their grade point averages, and they are being ‘rescued’ from difficult situations, while their male counterparts tend to take risks and are not being judged for failures," Wange said.

Today, young people spend nearly half of their time awake consuming media. During that time, they received a distorted portrayal of women. This can lead to serious gender perception problems that are explicit and implicit.

SciGirls is a multi-platform PBS program showcasing girls doing hands-on science and math projects. The program is broadcast into 90% of all U.S. households and has had more than 22 million viewer impressions. The strategy of this program is to show real girls doing real science. In each episode, the girls fail at some point. They would use the wrong formula or take the wrong steps. "It is crucial to teach girls how to embrace failures," Wange said.

7 strategies to keep young girls engaged in math and science

She also shared the following strategies on getting young girls engaged in math and science:

1. Teach girls to embrace collaboration
2. Engage in personally relevant projects
3. Engage them in hands-on, open-ended participation
4. Accommodate their preferred learning styles
5. Provide specific and positive feedback
6. Allow for critical thinking
7. Involve role models and mentors

"We need to show girls that women in science and manufacturing are not weird or asocial; they are successful and charismatic. If she can see it, she can be it," Wange said.

– Joy Chang, digital project manager, CFE Media, jchang@cfemedia.com.

– See related stories from the Women in Manufacturing (WiM) Summit below.