Exactly Why Do Girls Lose Interest in STEM?

Posted By Terri Williams on March 24, 2017 at 7:49 am
Exactly Why Do Girls Lose Interest in STEM?

To our readers: Today, GoodCall® examines the problem of keeping girls interested in STEM education. First, writer Terri Williams delves into research on why and when young women lose passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Later today, Terri will look at efforts to reignite that passion.


Despite the promise of STEM jobs and the advances women have made in education and in the field, the U.S. is far from achieving gender parity in STEM. Two new surveys shed light on the problem.

A Microsoft survey asked young women in Europe between the ages of 11 and 30 about their views regarding STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The survey reveals that at the age of 11½, girls are excited by those subjects. However, by the age of 15, they no longer have an interest in STEM.

Another survey, part of a joint effort by Accenture and Girls Who Code, reveals that when girls are in junior high school, they’re more likely to be interested in computer coding. However, when they’re in high school, they’re less likely to express interest in this field.

Taken together, the surveys raise a fascinating question: What’s causing enthusiasm levels to wane over the course of a few years?

It’s important because STEM jobs are projected to increase at a rapid pace, making it an attractive field for young people. Some experts even predict that the U.S. will need foreign labor to fill STEM jobs. Regardless of whether women aren’t being encouraged or nurtured to pursue it or whether they simply are opting out of STEM education, the gender gap in the field doesn’t bode well.

Highs and lows for women in STEM

Despite the discouraging outlook from the surveys, there have been recent success stories for women in STEM. For example, in 2016, Dartmouth graduated more female than male engineers. And schools such as Northeastern, Tufts, and Sweet Briar are working to close the STEM gap.

Lynn McMahon, managing director and New York Metro area lead at Accenture, tells GoodCall® that even before kids learn how to read and write, they have the ability to grasp programming concepts. However, she says there are three primary factors that determine whether girls in junior high school will find computing fun:

  • Reinforcing that computing is for girls – and is “cool.”
  • Providing exposure and experience computing.
  • Inspiring teachers.

“Sometimes, computing isn’t taught in high school, and even if it is, computing is often perceived as unenjoyable and isolating because their friends aren’t also studying this subject,” McMahon says.

The Microsoft survey reveals similar results: Girls don’t believe they get enough hands-on STEM experience, and they cite a lack of role models.

And once they lose interest, it doesn’t appear that girls ever rebound. Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy, Oracle’s philanthropic educational program aimed at advancing computer science education globally. She tells GoodCall® that in 2015 (the latest year for which numbers are available), only 22% of the students taking computer science in the College Board’s AP program were girls.

“However, technology pervades every aspect of our lives, and computer science drives our world,” Miller explains. “Computer science is no longer confined to traditional IT; it now touches virtually all sectors.”

While students can choose from a variety of professions, ranging from medicine to manufacturing, Miller says they will need to understand computing and coding. “Jobs requiring coding skills are projected to grow 12 percent faster than the overall job market through 2026.” In fact, half of all high-paying jobs require coding skills. And, the same research showed that even non-IT jobs require computing skills.

So, it makes sense that women should be taking advantage of these economic opportunities. “Computing jobs are the fastest growing segment of the market, and women make up more than half of the US workforce,” Miller says.

And she also believes that diverse creative teams are beneficial to companies and customers.

Maintaining interest

Education is the key to keeping girls interested in STEM. According to McMahon, “We need to develop more tailored programs that appeal to girls’ interests, and take a more targeted and sequenced approach to encourage girls to pursue CS-related learning at each stage of their education.”

She believes that coding projects have traditionally catered to the interests of boys; however, girls should be exposed to projects that will pique their interest as well. “Giving girls projects that help solve issues they care about or topics they just find fun will make a big difference,” McMahon explains.

In June 2016, Oracle Academy joined the White House in a global campaign to empower girls and women in technology fields. “Oracle pledged $3 million to educate girls around the world in STEM, through the ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative,” Miller says.

Some Oracle Academy projects include:

  • Teaming with Arizona State University and others under the USAID Build-IT project to help women in Vietnam develop into IT leaders.
  • Awarding grants and sponsorships globally to nonprofit organizations striving to increase girls’ access to educational opportunities and encourage them to pursue degrees in computer science and STEM fields.
  • Offering more than 65 educational events to reach more than 55,000 girls globally this year through a powerful nexus of its corporate social responsibility programs spanning Oracle Academy, Oracle Education Foundation, Oracle Giving and Volunteers, Oracle Women’s Leadership (OWL), and Oracle Diversity and Inclusion.

Miller says Oracle Academy has taken other steps to engage girls. “For example, our curriculum and resources are designed to appeal to all students, and we’re leveraging programming tools like Alice, featuring female role models, and incorporating general interest, real-world projects like using data to track and predict the spread of pandemic diseases.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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