Pop Culture and Girl Scouts: Chipping Away at Gender Barriers to STEM

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[Originally published March 9, 2017 by Kelly Dwyer on NewAmerica.org’s Education Policy]

GE commercial that aired during the Oscars asked, “What if we treated female scientists like they were celebrities?” The ad featured the late Millie Dresselhaus, the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering, to promote the company’s commitment to increasing the number of women in technical roles by 2020. This advertisement is on the heels of one of the most popular films of 2016, Hidden Figures, itself nominated for three awards that Sunday, that illuminated a group of female scientists and computational experts at NASA during the space race.

These snapshots of female scientists and mathematicians figure into a larger and increasingly nuanced portrait of women in STEM.  For a long time, the narrative of women and STEM has been a troubled one. Headlines tout the story that women are struggling in the field and we need to focus resources on increasing women’s participation. However, new data may tell a different story. Although there is no question that women are still underrepresented in STEM programs in universities and the workforce, it is time to look critically at the origins of such disparities and recognize the ways advocates are working to combat them.

In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) introduced a new exam, the Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment (TEL). The TEL was administered to a national sample of eighth grade students. On the exam, students were “presented with real world situations requiring understanding technological principles, solving technology and engineering-related problems, and using technology to communicate and collaborate.” The results were surprising.  On average, girls scored three points higher on the exam than their male classmates.

If middle school girls are outperforming their male peers on a national exam, where and why does the great divide in STEM start? Hidden Figures and the Millie Dresselhaus commercial point to the historical lack of strong female figures in the field due to barriers to education and employment. Some believe it is a matter of addressing interests and self-confidence. While opinions about the ongoing, underlying causes of gender inequalities in STEM vary, we should all agree that we can be doing more to remedy the situation.

Hidden Figures actor Aldis Hodge, who played main character Mary Jackson’s husband, said that the film is doing just that. He believes that the film is encouraging the next generation of female scientists.  A promotional event for the film was a  Girls Build LA event where 10,000 girls watched the film together and heard from the film’s actors and current NASA scientists. While providing exposure to women in STEM is an important step in encouraging long-term participation, advocates can take further steps, to promote early STEM engagement among girls.

One way is to take a cue from Hidden Figures inspiration Mary Jackson. In addition to being a leading woman professionally, Jackson was also a leading woman in her community. For over 30 years, she was a Girl Scout troop leader.

Currently, Girl Scouts are working to push back against the prevailing narrative of girls in STEM. In the past year, the national organization developed a National STEM Strategy. Programs are dual purpose; they are designed to increase girls’ STEM content knowledge and to develop their confidence in their STEM abilities.

According to the Girl Scout Research Institute, “These programs afford girls the opportunity to combine STEM learning with leadership development, growth mindset development, and other socially desirable skills in a flexible, informal environment that supports student-driven exploration and experimentation.”

Girls aren’t the only group lagging behind in STEM education and achievement. Low-income high school students go on to postsecondary programs in STEM at much lower rates than their wealthier peers. During a recent webinar, Audrey Kwik, the Director of STEM and Programs for Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas discussed how her area is working towards closing the gender gap in STEM, particularly for low-income girls. The Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas recently participated in a robotics project that involved local community colleges to offer coding classes and other introductory workshops. Nationally, robotics programs have been shown to increase interest in programming and engineering and knowledge of what engineering and scientists do.

However, cost can be a major barrier to participation in these programs, especially for low-income girls. That’s why, through scholarships and grants, participation in the robotics program was free for anyone who wanted to participate. The Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas also works with local school districts to identify schools with high economic needs and provides grants to help schools pay for STEM activities during the school day.

The gender gap cannot be bridged without addressing these other obstacles to equality in STEM education.

Current initiatives seem to be chipping away, albeit slowly, at barriers for women in STEM. Even the new administration is on board; last week, President Trump signed the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, to promote activities at NASA that are connecting astronauts with students in preK-12 schools. Perhaps these efforts to boost girls confidence in STEM abilities, open professional doors, and highlight female scientists in pop culture can make this the generation that closes the gender gap once and for all. And, although Hidden Figures didn’t walk away with any awards at the Oscars, the film’s real life inspiration, Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee Katherine Johnson, was recognized on stage and received a standing ovation. If that doesn’t confer celebrity status and say we’re on the right track, I’m not sure what does.