Why Do We Need Mentoring Programs for Young Women?

As the U.S. becomes more scientifically complex and its job market more technology-driven, the national need for a larger, more diverse, science-and computer-literate and skilled workforce becomes more acute.1 To strengthen and diversify the nation’s human capital, educators need to expand the participation of females in fields on the forefront of technical professions, such as information security, photonics, and rapid prototyping. Career opportunities abound, but there is a need for a mechanism for helping high school girls learn about and begin to pursue careers in emerging technology fields. Girls don’t want to go into technology because: a) it doesn’t seem fun or interesting; b) they don’t know what courses they need to take; c) they haven’t seen female role models in technology; or d) their parents, teachers, or peers have dissuaded them.2 It’s certainly not the case that girls are incapable of high achievement in math and science, the traditional gatekeeper subjects for technological pursuits:

While females performance in mathematics is often perceived to be lower than that of males, NAEP results have shown few consistent gender differences over the years, particularly among younger students. Twelfth-grade NAEP assessments in mathematics and science show no significant gender differences in achievement scores. However, females were less likely to report liking math or science. This is true despite the fact that young women take equally or more challenging mathematics and science coursework than their male peers in high school (with the exception of physics, which females are slightly less likely than males to take). Since the early 1970s, women have made gains in postsecondary education in terms of enrollment and attainment. Female high school seniors tend to have higher educational aspirations than their male peers and are more likely to enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school. Females also account for the majority of undergraduate enrollment and the majority of bachelors degree recipients. Gender differences in college majors persist, however, with females still predominant in somewhat lower paying fields like education, and males more likely to earn degrees in engineering, physics, and computer science.3

It’s clear that women are capable of thinking mathematically and scientifically and are fully capable of performing tasks within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) arena. What’s preventing them from reaching their full potential in these careers? One factor may be that both men and women harbor unconscious biases against women in science. Project Implicit—a network of laboratories, technicians, and research scientists at Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia—conducts research on implicit assumptions (e.g., about gender and science, skin color, religion, gender and career, weight, etc.) and analyzes the effects of stereotypic and prejudicial associations. The project’s findings to date inform the work of the Gender Equity Collaborative, namely that:4

Ongoing research on this phenomenon has been funded by the National Science Foundation. The NSF project, Implicit Cognition in STEM Education (Award # 0634041), builds on recent studies showing that implicit attitudes and stereotypes predict important STEM outcomes like self-identification with the field, engineering test performance, and college calculus grades. This project is designed to test specific hypotheses about the development and influence of implicit STEM cognitions in student performance, especially for girls and non-Asian minority students, members of groups known for disproportionate attrition from the STEM pipeline.6

Knowing that there may be deeply ingrained but unacknowledged socio-cultural beliefs influencing girls’ choices, how do we persuade girls to set their sights on technical careers early and begin laying the foundation of academics needed for matriculation into postsecondary programs? The partners of The Gender Equity Collaborative believe that mentoring may hold the key. (For more background on this issue, please read the excerpt from Encouraging Girls in Math and Science located under the Gender Equity Research tab above.)

1. New Formulas for America’s Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering. National Science Foundation, 2003.

2. Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age . AAUW Educational Foundation, 2000.

3. Trends in Educational Equity of Girls & Women . National Center for Education Statistics, 2004.

4.Project Implicit, Implicit Association Tests, https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

5.Project Implicit, http://projectimplicit.net

6.NSF Award #0634041, Brian Nosek, Principal Investigator, University of Virginia