Thursday, January 12, 2012

Closing the STEM Gender Gap through Mentoring Programs

Happy New Year!  As you probably already know, January is National Mentoring Month, which makes now the perfect time to resolve to learn how your organization can impact gender equity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields through a mentoring program.   
Why is mentoring so important in establishing equity in the STEM fields?  Isn’t it enough to provide high quality science programs in after school settings, spark boys’ and girls’ interest in science, and offer them support to explore, build, experiment and discover?
According to the Collaborative for Gender Equity in Emerging Technologies, young women don’t consider careers in science because they don’t have female role models in the field or because they feel dissuaded by adults to pursue a career in science.  Furthermore, there are powerful implicit assumptions, held by both men and women, that prevent girls from continuing on in STEM fields.  
One implicit assumption often made is that boys are just ‘naturally’ better at math than girls.  However, in a recent cross-cultural analysis of math abilities across gender by Jonathan Kane and Janet Mertz, no significant difference was found between boys’ and girls’ math abilities.  The report suggests that we need to make social and cultural changes if we want to close the gender gap.  As Mertz explains:
"None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level. Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed."
The partners of the Gender Equity Collaborative, and we at the Coalition for Science After School, believe that mentoring is a critical sociocultural key that can help debunk implicit assumptions about gender and science, and keep us moving towards equity in the STEM fields.   
Mentoring programs can and should look different depending on the needs of the youth in your community, and the strengths of your organization.  
  • 4-H’s mentoring program Tech Wizards is designed for all youth, not just girls, who tend to be underrepresented in STEM fields.
  • Techbridge highlighted in this article by EdWeek, serves over 600 elementary and secondary girls, most of whom are minorities.  The website has great resources for potential mentors. 
  • New Coalition member Chidren First CEO of Kansas recently announced the launch of their mentor program.  They are currently recruiting college women seeking STEM degrees, as well as girls in middle and high school to participate in monthly meetings.
  • At the Exploratorium, the Biology Department has created an internship program for one high school student.  This video shows that even the smallest of mentoring programs can have a tremendous impact on how a mentee feels about pursuing a future in STEM. 
If Mentoring Month, the stories listed above, or your reflections on your own career path have motivated you to make a difference in a young person’s life and in the future of the STEM field, visit on information on how to start a mentor program.  And if you’re already involved with a mentoring program, you’re not off the hook!  This is the perfect time time to think about evaluating your program.
How are you and your organization resolving to impact equity in the STEM fields through a mentor program?

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