Since the mid 1980s, girls have outperformed boys in the classroom in every subject area. So, why do girls score lower on standardized math and science tests? And why are women underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields both in college and professionally? Research shows that at a young age, females experience “stereotype threat,” a situation in which people are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. Stereotype threat for girls means that they are likely to become anxious about their performance in math and science, which can lower academic performance and interest in these areas. While this is a huge issue when it comes to increasing female representation in STEM fields, other stereotypes affect women of all ages, backgrounds, and careers. Take a look at the wage gap in the US: a woman earns an average of 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and there are extreme income disparities even when controlling for age, race, hours worked, and education.
Unfortunately, stereotypes start impacting girls at young ages and are everywhere you look, from magazines to music lyrics to sexist clothing for children. All of these factors impact the way women are perceived and the way young women value themselves.
Female empowerment is crucial to helping overcome these stereotypes. So, how can a teacher empower his or her female students in the classroom?
Here are a few tips to help boost female self-esteem and mitigate the impact of stereotype threat:
1) Offer Materials that Support Female Empowerment
Time for some self-reflection: Do the books you read or encourage your students to read include strong female characters? Or are you using the same old texts that have served you well in the past? Check out the following websites that can help you revamp your classroom bookshelf and bring new activities to your practice to boost female self-esteem:
- A Mighty Girl – If you need help finding alternative reading, this site offers female empowering book suggestions in every genre and age level. It also references movies, music, and toys that are great for girls.
- Common Sense Media – This site provides thoughtful book reviews from students and parents, including whether or not the book provides positive role models.
- Amy Smart Girls – Comedienne Amy Poehler launched this website to create an environment that supports older girls as they struggle with body image issues and conflicts with “mean girls.” This is a great source for female-focused activities to share with your students.
2) Put a Female Face on STEM
There are a number of exceptional women who have paved the way in STEM fields. Incorporate these role models into your classroom discussion so girls have powerful females to look up to and goals to strive towards:
- Ada Lovelace began writing code to translate numbers and words into computer language back in 1843, making her the first computer programmer in history.
- Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani recently won the Fields Prize for her work on geometric shapes. The Fields Medal is the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize in the math world.
- Rachel Carson was a scientist and one of the first ecologists. Her book Silent Spring was one of the first to question the use of pesticides and to call for regulations on chemicals.
- Shirley Jackson holds two notable roles. Not only was she one of the first women to receive her doctorate from MIT in theoretical physics, she is also the first African-American to do so.
- Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983. The first ever woman in space was Russian cosmonautValentina Tereshkova who first went into space in 1963. Right now an American woman named Peggy Whitson is on the International Space Station serving as the first female commander!
- Alba Colon is a well-known Hispanic engineer for NASCAR who has designed winning race cars for popular drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and, of course, Danica Patrick.
This is just a small list of exceptional female role models. Ask your students to research and share with the class examples of additional female ground breakers who are making strides in various fields.
3) Encourage STEM Programs
Only 24% of the professionals working in STEM are women, but women who do work in STEM fields earn an average of 33% more than women in other careers. There are many organizations that have developed programs to empower girls in STEM:
- Girls,Inc. is partnering with Lockheed Martin to support girls in STEM by offering a variety of programs across the United States.
- Google’s Made with Code encourages girls to become computer programmers, aka coders, by providing resources to show them how. There are even tips for teachers and schools to encourage the computer sciences by hosting code parties.
4) Provide mentors
Possibly the most important way to support our girls is to connect them with mentors. Studies show that mentors help improve grades, lower absenteeism rates, and reduce incidences of illegal drug and alcohol abuse. Girls with mentors also stay in school longer and have lower levels of teen pregnancy. Visit Girls Who Rule the World for more statistics and information about mentoring.
There are a number of national mentoring programs, and some, like the NASA program, are specific to certain industries. Check out local organizations such as the Y, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, or the Junior League for local mentoring opportunities.
Little changes matter
When it comes to female empowerment, these are just a few examples of the small things you can do to instill confidence in your female students. First and foremost, it is important to provide a safe classroom environment where all students feel comfortable to ask questions and share their thoughts and ideas with their teacher and their peers.