Work aggressively to narrow the gender gap in STEM fields

In recent years, the united states succeeded in narrowing the many dimensions of the gender gap. In health care, in wages and in political power, women have made some noteworthy shifts toward closing the once-wide gulf of inequality with men.

In one large and critical discipline, however, the gender gap remains largely frozen in time and, in some cases, has actually widened. Proportionately far fewer girls and women are gravitating toward educational and career paths in one of the hottest, most exciting and fastest growing sectors of the economy — namely STEM.

In the ever expanding sphere of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it’s still a man’s world. According to 2013 Census data, nearly 4 out of every 5 workers in STEM fields are male. Considering the direct link between STEM and the ability of the United States to achieve ongoing and robust economic growth, that gap must be closed. If not, far too much human potential will remain untapped.

Fortunately, initiatives on the local, state and federal levels aim to increase female participation in these dynamic growth sectors, and they wisely aim to spark interest and engagement of girls at a very young age.

One such progressive program is unfolding in Youngstown City Schools. Thanks to grants from FirstEnergy and the Wean Foundation, the Chaney Campus has initiated STEM Girls, a girls-only club that meets after school twice monthly to learn about STEM careers, participate in hands-on science, engineering and technology projects and to provide networking opportunities for the those pupils who share similar interests.

As Sharon Ragan, middle-school STEM teacher at Chaney, put it, “When we talk to the STEM Girls, Mrs. [Pam] Lubich and I like to discuss academics, schooling and future jobs in STEM-related fields. We want them to know what is out there for them.”

Elsewhere, the Ohio Department of Education is fortifying its STEM Learning Network to provide $150 million in grants for teachers. At the federal level, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Barack Obama administration have placed a premium on reaching out to young girls on the long-term benefits of STEM learning.

Few role models

The mission to increase the ranks of girls in the hard sciences will be daunting to be sure. After all, young girls have been exposed to few role models from STEM disciplines in their lives. An even bigger barrier continues to be the lingering gender stereotypes that keep too many girls unwilling to venture out of home economics classrooms and stand their ground in traditionally male-dominated fields of computer science, information technology and engineering.

Targeting girls at middle-school and even elementary-school levels and inviting them to explore the many benefits of STEM represent a solid first step toward closing the gap. It also makes practical sense for America’s future because STEM career fields rank as the second fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy — second only to health care — according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Workers in STEM fields also earn on average 33 percent more than those in non-STEM arenas, plus the levels of job satisfaction in them are among the highest of any profession, that same Commerce data points out.

With so much at stake, school districts throughout the Valley should follow Youngstown’s exemplary lead by expanding curricular and extracurricular opportunities for girls. In so doing, they can tear down the walls of gender segregation that stymie STEM’s potential.

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