Helping ‘STEM’ Girls Get Further Than the Fridge: Turning Aptitude into Career Aspirations

Helping ‘STEM’ Girls Get Further Than the Fridge:
Turning Aptitude into Career Aspirations
By Karen Purcell

Fueled by the social movements of the 1960s, agencies in our federal government tried to neutralize gender bias within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. In 1972, for example, an educational amendment prohibited sexual discrimination in all educational programs that accepted federal assistance. But the ban did not immediately implant a gender-neutral system across all fields. And, although I was just an elementary school girl in the mid-1970s, amendments and acts like these paved the way for me to choose an area of STEM to study. However, without understanding the opportunities that are available to students of math and science, young women may think they have made a mistake when facing the challenges of completing a STEM major in college. While young people today have more opportunities to become exposed to STEM subjects than were available when I was in high school, still more needs to be done. The United States is trailing behind other countries in the STEM fields because fewer young people are pursuing STEM degrees in college. This will continue to plague our country until all students, girls and boys, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Below are a few strategies for how we can help.

Expose Young Girls to STEM. As a country, we stand to gain a lot by exposing young girls to STEM fields and encouraging those who are interested to follow their hearts and minds. Simply focusing attention on one age group cannot cure all societal issues that influence career choices among females. Correcting the negative perceptions that girls develop at a young age can, however, lead them to embrace math and science when they reach high school, rather than avoid the subjects. Administrators and educators must strive to create environments in high school and college math and science programs that are inviting to females to help prevent the likelihood of their choosing a different direction.

Encourage Participation in Special Programs. More and more workshops are sprouting up nowadays that encourage young girls to maintain their interest in STEM fields. In-school and out-of-school programs are gaining popularity, and in order for that to continue, those of us in STEM fields have to support both local and national efforts to foster girls. The good news is that current programs that focus on increasing young girls’ interest in those fields are tremendous. But without them, there are potential long-term consequences, even for girls who select a STEM path in college.

Support Learning Opportunities in the Community. When in a position to do so, offering summer internships provides a chance for girls and women to learn more about different possibilities in the STEM fields. Many firms also now offer job shadowing programs or career days. Job shadowing allows those interested in a specific field to follow an individual who is already working in that field for a day or a given amount of time. This lets the individual see typical job duties and activities required for that field. It is a great way to get a feel for what a job may entail.

Serve as a Mentor. The significance of mentorship is undeniably important if we are to bring more women into STEM. Women need strong, professional, and positive influences in the STEM fields. Share your expertise, experience, and guidance. An optimistic and confident mentor can have a huge impact on someone’s life.

Take Charge and Educate. We’re an information-rich society and every one of us has access to vast resources—they’re available online for any woman interested in the STEM fields. Women can visit the websites of multiple professional organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, Women in Technology International, Association for Women in Mathematics, and Association of Women in Science, just to name a few. It is a tremendous opportunity to learn a great deal about the field, about what it’s like to be a woman in a specific STEM profession, about career opportunities, and so on. While it might not be as enlightening as face-to-face communication with a professional in the field, it will certainly give women an informed starting point from which they can grow.

I challenge each of you to take part in the movement to help grow the STEM fields and the ranks of women in it. I encourage you to reach out and see if you can find time to make change, empower and enable young women in STEM.

Karen Purcell, P.E., is the founder and president of PK Electrical, an electrical engineering, design, and consulting firm in Reno, Nevada. She is the author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. For more information, please visit