Breaking the Glass Ceiling Early On: How to Empower Girls in STEM

Women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce face major obstacles — not only are they underrepresented and underpaid, but they also sometimes lack the confidence to assert their knowledge. The numbers are even more staggering for women of color in each distinct field.

According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis, Hispanic workers make up 17% of total employment across all occupations, but just 8% of all STEM workers. Similarly, Black workers comprise 11% of all employed adults, compared with 9% of those in STEM occupations, with no significant change in this percentage of STEM jobs since 2016.

Although women comprise 50% of workers employed in STEM jobs, they are heavily clustered in health-related roles and account for only 25% of computer-related occupations. Why does such a talent gap continue to persist? What challenges are they facing that impede them from moving forward at the same pace as their male counterparts?

To begin to answer this question, we’ll explore the factors that contribute to the major STEM talent gap girls face early on, solutions to combat such barriers, as well as lists of useful resources to boost their confidence and engage girls in local programs.

How Young Girls Can Combat “The Confidence Gap” in STEM

Did you know that girls’ confidence starts dropping by 30% between the ages of 8 and 14?

That’s what Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know, discovered in their research. As young girls head into adolescence, they tend to gravitate toward certain biological and cultural signals that inherently reinforce carefulness, a need for perfection, and risk aversion.

Instead of attempting new things and taking the risk to fail and move on, girls are pushed toward perfectionistic qualities that don’t nurture their ability to step out of their comfort zones. Kay and Shipman’s data revealed that the percentage of girls who say they are not allowed to fail rises 150% between the ages of 12 and 13, with 45% of 13 year olds stating they don’t feel able to fail.

As young girls continue to grow and accelerate their learning, these attributes are only further exacerbated by societal pressures — ultimately playing out through adulthood. How can we build young girls’ confidence?

Practicing Healthy Social Media Habits

In today’s interconnected world, it’s hard to escape the beast that is social media. Research shows that the largest percentage of kids, 39%, opened their first social media account between 10 and 12 years old.

With young girls being more susceptible to the negative effects of the internet, including feelings of decreased self worth and dejection, parents are encouraged to follow these tips:

Screen Vacation

Just as in real-life, sometimes you may need a break from your social media accounts. Set aside a few days, or even a week, and put away the phone.

Go back to the basics and engage in activities that don’t involve a screen — this could include spending time outdoors, playing a sport, catching up with friends or family in person, etc. Ask your child to reflect on their “time off.” Depending on how they feel, they could make this vacation a regular habit.

When you have the itch to tweet, Instagram, Snap, or post anything online, ask your child to give themselves 24 hours.

How do they feel after an entire day has passed? Do they still feel the need to share their post with the online world? Maybe they don’t think it’s as urgent as it originally seemed.

24-Hour Rule

The Grandma Test

Encourage young girls to ask themselves, “This photo, link, or post that I’m sharing with others online, would I also share that with my grandma — someone who is disconnected from trends and influencers?”

By asking them to pause and think twice before publishing any content that may be negative or do more harm than good, they can avoid getting caught up in the rush of social media.

How we think affects how we feel — which ultimately impacts our behavior. This goes hand-in-hand with the type of content that shows up on your newsfeed. Encourage young girls to keep their following to a minimum and be hyper-aware of who they’re choosing to look up to.

Sit down together and spotlight some trailblazers in the STEM field who have active social accounts they can follow. While these professionals may not be the most popular or viral, the dedication and motivation that pushes them to reach their goals may become significant driving forces for your own child’s future career aspirations.

Follow the Right People

Highlight Hashtags

One simple way of keeping up with interests on social media is through hashtags. Staying up-to-date on specific hashtags can help your child better engage with niche communities as opposed to what’s merely trending online.

Take a look through some of these: #STEMCareers #STEMGirls #WomenInSTEM #GirlsInSTEM #GirlsInTech #WomenInTech #STEMEducation

Starting the Journey in Early Education

You’re probably familiar with the age-old adage of, “It’s never too late to start something new.” The same goes for young girls’ education — it’s never too early to expose them to STEM-related resources, including

  • Books
  • Technology
  • Educational programs
  • Activities

Believe it or not, we’re exposed to stereotypes that subliminally direct our behavior and decisions from an early age. By first grade, children have already developed implicit biases associating math with boys. In turn, the AAUW report, Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, found that girls who associate mathematics with boys and men at this early age are less likely to become interested in or pursue the field, as well as dedicate time to studying or engaging related concepts.

This difference persists into adolescence and eventually adulthood. In a 2020 report, UNICEF discovered that only 18% of female university learners throughout the world pursue STEM fields, compared to 35% of men. The imbalance continues into graduate and doctoral levels as well.

STEM learning starts naturally for toddler-aged children, and can happen even earlier. At the preschool level, children often ask various questions about the world around them such as, “Why is the sky blue?”, “Why are dinosaurs extinct?”, and “Where does water come from?”

In order to combat gender bias and societal stereotypes, it’s important to capture young girls’ curiosity and attention through fun, engaging experiences. Instead of focusing on “why” questions, shift their attention to “what”:

  • What happened there?
  • What did you try?
  • What have you changed about what you are making?
  • What do you notice about ________?
  • What do you think will happen if we _______?

These types of questions not only help girls further develop their communication and developmental skills, but it also helps them build confidence, become comfortable using critical thinking skills, and voice their thoughts and opinions.

Just like real-world STEM professionals ask questions, develop models, and conduct investigations — teachers and parents alike can encourage the following basic skills:

Scientific Process Skills

Skill Definition Example
Observing Using the senses to gather information about an object or event Describing a pencil as yellow

Making an “educated guess” about an object or event based on previously gathered data or information

Determining that the person who used a particular pencil made alot of mistakes because the eraser is well-worn

Using both standard and non-standard measures or estimates to describe the dimensions of an object or event

Using a meter stick to measure the length of a table in centimeters

Communicating Using words or graphic symbols to describe an action, object, or event Describing the change in height of a plant over time in writing or through a graph

Grouping or ordering objects or events into categories based on properties or criteria

Placing all rocks sharing a certain grain size or hardness into one group
Predicting  Stating the outcome of a future event based on a pattern of evidence Predicting the height of a plant in two weeks’ time based on a graph of its growth during the previous four weeks
The Science Process Skills. Research Matters…To the Science Teacher / Michael J. Padilla

Mathematical Language Skills

  • How many legs does the stuffed animal have? What about its eyes and arms?
  • Let’s count the steps it takes to get to the front door. Now, let’s count going down. Can we do it together?
  • Which pile of crackers do you think has more? Which one do you think has less? Let’s count to find out.
  • Would you like to craft some clay today? Yes? How much crafting would you like to do, a lot or a little?
  • Look, you have 1, 2, 3 blocks. I have 1, 2 blocks. Now I’m going to take one more block and then I will have 1, 2, 3 blocks, just like you!
  • You ate 2 of your banana slices. Now you have 1, 2 banana slices left.
  • Kate shared a train with you. She gave you 1 train and now she has 3 trains left.
  • Shapes: Let’s look up – do you see any squares on the ceiling? Yes, the tiles are squares.
  • Relationship between objects: The car is right next to the house. I see you put the stuffed bunny inside the box. Try turning it around — the button is on the back.
  • Direction and movement: When you rolled the ball, it went straight down the ramp. We are going to turn right because we are walking to the freezer aisle.
  • First, we changed your diaper. Now, we are getting your bottle. Then, it will be naptime.
  • Let’s do a dance: Clap, stomp, clap, stomp, clap, stomp. Can you try it too?
  • Your shirt has red stripes then blue stripes. Let’s count them.
  • Look how big that dog is. And the other dog is smaller!
  • When you pushed the car down the slide, it went so fast.
  • Today is hot. Today the sun is out and we are wearing shorts and t-shirts.
Let’s Talk About Math: Making Math Language Part of Everyday Routines / Rebecca Parlakian

Finding Representation in Media

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Think back on how many times you’ve probably asked or heard someone else ask a child this question.

For a young girl to have any significant interest in science, technology, engineering, or math, it helps to see and understand what people in these fields do on an everyday basis. This is challenging, however, when the media we typically consume is biased.

For example, this report from the Lyda Hill Foundation and The Geena Davis Institute found that male STEM characters significantly outnumbered female STEM characters in film, television, and streaming content from 2007–2017.

Additionally, 3 in 5 female STEM characters were found to be white (60.4%), while 23.5% were Black, 8.3% were Asian/Asian-American, 6.4% were Latinx, and less than one percent were Middle Eastern.

STEM professionals are, and continue to be, primarily represented by men — white men, specifically. In the last decade, while more female STEM characters have been included in popular media, there are still few, if any, BIPOC women portrayed.

You may ask, does entertainment truly influence how many young girls move into STEM? Yes, it does! Four out of 5 survey respondents stated that seeing girls/women as STEM characters on television is important to them. Here are the percentage breakdowns of girls and women who said the following characters inspired them to pursue STEM:

How can the industry foster diverse and compelling STEM images, stories, and positive messages in mainstream media? A 2016 report produced by the Obama administration highlighted three ways:

  1. Include diverse STEM role models (past and present)
  2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and their societal impacts
  3. Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions

By increasing the representation of women and women of color as STEM characters, young girls can gain stronger exposure to female professionals in each respective field and, ultimately, choose to follow these related interests later on in their own careers.

Maintaining a Growth Mindset

“I am of the belief entirely that your qualities and skills can be cultivated through effort, strategy, and support from others. Computer scientists are not born, they are made.” — Ally Watson, CEO and co-founder of Code Like a Girl

A growth mindset is the belief that we can learn and find our own success, whereas a fixed mindset believes we’re born with naturally limited abilities or intelligence that cannot be changed. According to findings in Closing the STEM Gap, growth mindset and a supportive and encouraging environment are primary drivers in enhancing girls’ engagement with STEM.

How can we ensure we’re encouraging girls to be more confident in their own talents and opportunities? One way is by examining and paying close attention to language. For example:

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset 

“You’re really good at math.”

(Fixed mindset praises ability)

“You worked really hard at those math problems!”

(Growth mindset praises effort)

“Math is just really hard for some people.”

“Everyone learns in different ways. Let’s keep trying to find the way that works for you.”

“Why can’t you get better scores on your math tests?” “What mistake did you make in math today that taught you something?”

“I had to try really hard to understand that problem. I must not be good at math.”

(Fixed mindset looks down on effort)

“I had to try really hard to understand that problem, and I got better at math because of it.”

(Growth mindset sees effort as a good thing)

This Is What STEM Looks Like! How To Get and Keep Girls Engaged in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, (.PDF, 6.6 MB).

Parent's Reading List

For parents, here is a list of books that can further help promote a child’s growth mindset:

  • Mindsets for Parents: Strategies to Encourage Growth Mindset in Kids by Mary Cay Ricci and Margaret Lee
  • The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection by Brene Brown
  • The Girls’ Guide to Growth Mindset: A Can-Do Approach to Building Confidence, Courage, and Grit by Kendra Coates, DEd
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
  • How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
  • The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child by D. Siegel
  • How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise

    Children's Reading List

    For children, here is are list of books suitable for reading aloud with a parent or reading independently to develop a stronger growth mindset:

    • The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Gary Rubinstein and Mark Pett
    • She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton
    • Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
    • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
    • I Can Do Hard Things: Mindful Affirmations for Kids by Gabi Garcia
    • Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
    • Unstoppable Me!: 10 Ways to Soar Through Life by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer and Kristina Tracy
    • Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves by Kate T. Parker
    • The Magical Yet by Angela DiTerlizzi
    • Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It by JoAnn Deak
    • The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
    • Ursa’s Light by Deborah Marcero

    Expanding Indoor/Outdoor Activities

    Developing girls’ confidence goes hand-in-hand with letting them know they belong. One way to empower their skills and knowledge is to encourage them at home through activities, toys, and projects that promote STEM education.

    Here are several at-home activities for parents and kids using simple everyday objects:

    • Build a Balance Scale: An activity using common household items to build a balance scale for preschoolers to explore weights.
    • Build a Sand Volcano: A tutorial explaining how young children can make a sand volcano in a sandbox using baking soda and vinegar.
    • Why Is The Sky Blue?: A science experiment that explains to young kids why the sky is blue by utilizing a flashlight.
    • Testing Magnets: A free printable magnet worksheet that helps children test the magnetism of everyday objects.
    • Rainbow Jar: A step-by-step guide on creating a multilayered rainbow jar that explains to children how different liquids can have different weights.
    • Light-Up Circuit Valentines: A tutorial for parents to build conversation hearts with their children using an LED and coin cell batteries.
    • Solar-Powered Paper House Project: An activity for young children that explains how solar energy works by powering a paper house with mini solar panels.
    • Build a Circuit Flower: A tutorial that explains how parents can help young kids build electronic circuit flowers with colored papers.
    • Stop Motion Animation: A fun activity that introduces young children to stop motion animation using a collection of common household objects.
    • LEGO(R) Secret Codes: An activity that helps kids create a code using different LEGO(R) bricks for each letter of the alphabet.
    • Paper Building Blocks: A tutorial that demonstrates engineering for kids by putting paper to the test and seeing how strong it can truly be.
    • Building With Straws: An activity for children that requires them to utilize only 10 straws to design the tallest tower imaginable.
    • Build a Balloon Car: A balloon car tutorial for children that teaches them the building blocks of all things that move, including levers, pulleys, wedges, screws, and more.
    • Minion Brush Bots: A free printable template for parents to help young children create their own Minion bots that can run and circle around using an angled head toothbrush.
    • Heart Popsicle Stick Catapult: An activity where kids can build a catapult that actually launches with simple STEM and popsicle sticks.
    • Uno Math Game: A math challenge for young children utilizing the popular card game that focuses on basic addition/subtraction to increase their skills and memory speed.
    • Play Dough Math Mats: A learning activity where kids can practice their counting and fine motor skills while using printable Play-Doh mats.
    • Shape Clip Cards: An activity for young preschoolers that can help them learn to recognize and identify shapes with clip cards.
    • Post-It Number Match: An activity for toddlers that helps them better understand what numbers truly mean by using Post-It Notes and drawing dots.
    • Multiplication Dice Game: A multiplication dice game for preschoolers that teaches them basic multiplication facts.

    Feel like getting out of the house? Parents should encourage girls to step outside and engage in the following environments and activities:

    • Libraries
    • Museums
    • Nature hikes
    • Science centers
    • Zoos and aquariums

    Building Community

    Today, there are also a variety of extracurricular activities available to girls that help build confidence and STEM skills. These range from creative projects that can help them kickstart their own initiatives, to part-time immersion programs.

    List of STEM Organizations For Girls

    The following organizations and resources were created to help close the gender gap in STEM. Each one offers different opportunities that can help spark young girls’ interests and proficiency in a variety of areas. Take a look!

    • DigiGirlz: A Microsoft program that provides middle and high school girls* with opportunities to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.
    • Girls Who Code: A program offering online resources, campaigns, books, and advocacy work — in the U.S. and around the world — through clubs for 3rd–5th and 6th–12th graders, summer programs that teach high school learners to code, and college programs to help alumni succeed and build a community with other women in tech.
    • National Girls Collaborative Program: A group bringing together organizations committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
    • National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT): An organization working to increase the meaningful and influential participation of all girls and women in computing from K–12.
    • TECHNOLOchicas: A program designed to raise awareness among young Latinas and their families about opportunities and careers in technology.
    • STEM Like a Girl: An affordable, research-backed approach to STEM education that combines early exposure, parent engagement, and positive female role models.
    • ChickTech: A nonprofit engaging youth and adults of marginalized genders in the technology industry through building communities, empowering participants to see themselves as leaders, and providing networking and mentoring opportunities.
    • STEM for Her: An organization providing girls and young women direct exposure to hands-on experiences, mentors and role models, and other programs to envision the path to an education and a career in STEM.
    • AkiraChix: An organization that provides promising young African women with technology and entrepreneurial skills to compete economically and bridge the gender gap in tech.
    • EngineerGirl: A website designed to bring national attention to the exciting opportunities that engineering represents for girls and women.
    • Physics Girl: A YouTube channel created by Dianna Cowern that offers adventures into the physical sciences with experiments, demonstrations, and cool new discoveries.
    • Carnegie STEM Girls+: A comprehensive website with activities, resources, and links designed to get teenagers excited about STEM.
    • PBS: SciGirls: A television program for kids ages 8–12, showcasing bright, curious, real tween girls putting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to work in their everyday lives.
    • Pretty Brainy: An organization empowering girls to embrace STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art + Design, and Math) and equipping them to develop their abilities to make a positive difference in the world.
    • Girl Powered: An initiative to provide virtual or small in-person workshops with the goal of engaging and informing young women about STEM and robotics opportunities they might not be aware of.
    *Anyone who identifies as female regardless of assignment at birth. The program also welcomes people who identify as non-binary. Although this program’s focus is girls, all are welcome to attend regardless of gender identity.

    How Young Girls Can Find STEM Mentorship

    Mentors provide enriching experiences. How? A mentor is able to inspire and share their professional perspective and experience with a mentee — cultivating a teaching relationship full of wisdom and support.

    This 2017 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study found that women in engineering who had female mentors were more likely to remain in the field and felt a greater sense of belonging.

    In fact, having a trusted, dedicated individual who can guide and support women through such obstacles as gender-related discrimination, sexual harassment, salary inequality, and maternity discrimination can be invaluable.

    “The way Carolyn supported me throughout that process [taking on a new position] illustrates something important in terms of what good mentors do. Not only do they affirm you and provide the support required to ensure you are successful — they rally other people to create that environment.” — Elizabeth Lund, Senior Vice President at Boeing

    Finding a mentor that can make STEM fun and engaging at a young age is crucial for girls. Not only can they help dispel negative stereotypes associated with high-level intellectual abilities, but they can also cultivate safe environments to further fuel their interests and skills.

    List of STEM Mentorship For Girls

    Take a look at several organizations and resources that are focused on providing young girls and women mentorship opportunities with professionals in the field:

    • FabFems: An international database of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions who are inspiring role models for young women.
    • 500 Women Scientists: An organization representing the voices of tens of thousands of women scientists all over the globe.
    • Women in STEM: An organization that matches female university learners and professionals with high school girls seeking mentors.
    • Million Women Mentors: An engagement campaign and national call to action that mobilizes corporations, government entities, nonprofit, and higher education groups around the imperative of mentoring girls and young women in STEM fields.
    • IF/THEN Collection: The largest free resource of its kind, dedicated to increasing access to authentic and relatable images of real women in STEM.
    • National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR): An organization that develops quality resources to advance mentoring program effectiveness and innovation while working to drive increased investment to sustain and grow mentoring programs nationwide.
    • The Clubhouse Network: A creative and safe out-of-school learning environment where young people from underserved communities work with adult mentors to explore their own ideas, develop new skills, and build confidence in themselves through the use of technology.
    • Great Minds in STEM: This organization matches STEM learners with professionals in compatible mentoring relationships.
    • Women In Bio: An organization of professionals committed to promoting careers, leadership, and the entrepreneurship of women in the life sciences.
    • Woman to Woman Mentoring: A free program that connects female STEM learners with female STEM professionals as mentors and role models.

    Parents can also reinforce diverse career opportunities in each STEM-related field at home by fostering interest beyond popular roles. This way, girls can be exposed to different subfields and choose to find mentors in these specific professions.

    Sciences Technology Engineering Mathematics
    Anthropology Computer Science Aerospace Engineering Cryptography
    Biochemistry Data Science Biomedical Engineering Economics
    Environmental Science Data Visualization Civil Engineering Financial Planning
    Forensic Science Information Technology Electrical Engineering Investment Analysis
    Geography Machine Learning Environmental Engineering Mathematics
    Marine Biology Network Security Marine Engineering Research Analysis
    Toxicology Software Engineering Nuclear Engineering Risk Analysis
    Zoology User Experience/User Interface Design Surveying Statistics

    Why Should We Expose Girls to STEM?

    Gender biases affect not only how we view and treat others, but also how we view ourselves and the actions we take as a result.

    By exposing girls to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, we can create more diverse career opportunities for women, leading to an increase of creativity, productivity, and innovation in STEM across all industries.