According to a new survey conducted by Junior Achievement USA, a large gap still exists between the number of boys and girls interested in pursuing STEM-related careers. More than one-third (36 percent) of boys aim to pursue careers in STEM fields, while only 11 percent of girls demonstrate similar interest.
In explaining why career paths are still so evidently determined by gender, Kim McGrigg, JA-Rocky Mountain's director of communications, points to a few obstacles. "Young women need to understand all their options without setting false limits, which is what is happening now," she says. "Along with a lack of female role models in the field, there is also a lack of exposure to what STEM looks like in the real world."
An interesting aspect of the study, however, also shows that young girls are far more committed to pursuing meaningful careers directed at helping others than are boys. In fact, the most appealing factor for boys regarding their dreams jobs is "I think it would be fun," while for girls, it's "I would help people." As a result, 26 percent of the girls favor working in fields like medical/dental, compared to 6 percent in boys.
"There is a perception that in a STEM field you'll be stuck in a lab all day," says McGrigg. "Girls need to learn that you can help people in STEM careers." With the greatest innovations in medicine, environment and technology occurring in STEM fields today, McGrigg hopes that girls will begin to realize that work in a lab can have just as much of an impact as work in a hospital room.
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JA's national headquarters is located in Colorado Springs, and its Rocky Mountain branch has numerous programs that actively seek to get young students in Colorado and the lower half of Wyoming –– especially young girls –– excited about STEM careers. "Last year, we reached 130,000 students and had 6,000 volunteers," McGrigg says.
JA organizes volunteer-led programs that go into K-12 classrooms with the aim of teaching skills in financial literacy, entrepreneurship and career readiness. "Having a role model in the classroom is critical," notes McGrigg. Accordingly, JA has made a concerted effort to engage volunteers who specifically work in STEM-related professions. JA also has a job-shadowing program that allows students to visit STEM sites such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and work with companies like Arrow Electronics and OtterBox.
A study in 2016 showed that alumni of JA programs are twice as likely to start their own business as the average person, 30 percent more likely to have a four-year degree, and 67 percent more like to have an advanced degree. JA's efforts at encouraging gender diversity in STEM fields could one day yield similarly positive results.