Nationwide programs are closing the gender gap in STEM fields by inspiring girls to make, create and invent.
Studies show again and again that women remain wildly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). While women earn more than 50 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences in the United States, they earn only 18 percent of those for computer sciences, 18 percent for engineering and 43 percent for mathematics and statistics.
Will this ever change?
A new study says the maker movement, a technology-inspired branch of the DIY movement that promotes “learning-through-doing,” could help bridge the gender gap in STEM fields.
“Girls’ interest in technology degrees and careers is declining and the representation of women in the tech industry is low,” said Dr. Renee Wittemyer, Intel’s Director of Social Innovation and lead researcher of MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology Through Making, Creating, and Inventing.
The MakeHers report is the result of a collaboration between Intel’s New Devices Group (NDG), Intel Labs and the company’s Corporate Affairs Group, which asked why women are eschewing tech fields.
It draws from multiple surveys in the United States, China and Mexico, interviews with experts in the field, ethnographic research on female makers, and literature reviews on the movement and the gender gap in STEM.
“Making is a good activity to engage and interest more women in STEM, and increase the size of the ‘well’ of people for the STEM pipeline,” said Wittemyer.
“Enabling girls and women to participate in making expands the STEM talent pool, fueling competition and innovation, and ultimately strengthening the global economy.”
Participants, or “makers,” take advantage of inexpensive, powerful, easy-to-use tools such as 3D printers, microcontrollers and laser cutters to create physical objects.
The report provides an overview of the maker movement, information on those who participate in it, and analysis of the conditions that caused the gender gap to emerge in the first place.
Results showed that making is already popular with tweens and teens in the United States, with girls and boys equally likely to be “tech makers.”
It showed that most women makers enjoy creating with others, including co-workers, their children or educators, and are particularly motivated by the social service aspects of making.
Wittemyer, explained that the primary reason for the gender gap in tech fields isn’t necessarily that women aren’t pursuing jobs within the fields.
“Women leave STEM fields at a higher rate than do their male peers,” she said. “Workplace environment, bias or gender-based stereotypes and family responsibilities all play a role.”
Women in STEM fields can experience bias that negatively influences their progress and participation, she said.
According to a Forbes report on the subject, girls and young women also experience a “lack of female role models in STEM fields.”
It wasn’t always this way.
For decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed.
NPR wondered if the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s — and the way it was marketed primarily to boys — is at least partially to blame for the decrease in the number of women in the computer sciences.
While women are not creating technology at nearly the same rate as men, they outnumber men in nearly all categories of tech adoption.
According to a talk given by Intel researcher Genevieve Bell in 2012, women own the majority of tech devices, use their mobile phones, the Internet and location-based services more than men, and influence the purchase of technology in households as much or more than men do.
The act of making could help transition women from tech consumers to tech creators, which would will diversify the workforce. The MakeHers report suggests that getting women involved in the maker movement could lead to better designed products and services that are more representative of all users.
While the problem is multi-faceted and there’s no quick fix, the MakeHers report makes recommendations for industry leaders, parents and others to promote the engagement of girls and young women in making.
The report advises libraries and museums to hold informal maker “hangouts” for underrepresented groups. It also encourages educators to identify trends and fads to integrate within making activities.
Wittemyer encouraged parents to embrace the mess by allowing young girls to experiment, tinker and invent at home.
On Nov. 18, 2014, after the MakeHers report release, USAID and Intel hosted a Capitol Hill event. Here, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, joins Megan Smith, United States Chief Technology Officer, discuss the future of women in tech.
These recommendations can help close the STEM gender gap and create a more supportive environment for girls and young women in the tech disciplines, said Wittemyer.
The MakeHers report provides several examples of programs and events that are successfully putting these recommendations into action.
Dublin Maker, a family-friendly celebration of the maker movement, showcases the invention, creativity and resourcefulness of its participants.
Double Union is a hacker/maker space for women in San Francisco.
Girls Have IT Day is a free event designed to engage middle school-aged girls in hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activities.
Wittemyer praised TechGyrls, a nationwide YWCA after-school empowerment program that provides girls with opportunities to increase their skills and confidence in the use of technology and engineering.
She said this program is particularly admirable for enabling the girls to make what they want, something they are personally passionate about through its partnership with Intel and TechShop.
While pursuing careers, women aren’t receiving the support and encouragement they need to join men in the math and science roles. Building interest in STEM disciplines early through maker activities and programs could change that but it will also take new approaches from industries.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently announced the company’s Diversity Initiative, a $300 million investment aimed at getting women and underrepresented minorities into technology fields.
These kinds of efforts could lead to better products and services that are more representative of what a more diverse population wants and needs, according to Krzanich.
As co-founder and lead writer/editor for LA Music Blog, a Los Angeles-based music news and review website, Kristin Houser’s life revolves around music and technology. She is very pleased to share her latest music obsessions and all the ways technology allows her to discover and enjoy music with iQ’s audience.