Despite substantial improvement over the past half decade, the gender pay gap still persists in the U.S. When the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women made 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Fifty years later, in 2014, women earned 81 cents on the male dollar. One area on which educators and policymakers have focused to rectify the gender pay differential is encouraging young girls to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women account for half of the workforce in the U.S., but they are employed in less than 25 percent of STEM positions. Women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM occupations, but women hold far fewer STEM undergraduate degrees than men, especially in engineering. And, perplexingly, even women with a STEM degree seem less inclined to work in STEM jobs; they are more likely than STEM-educated men to choose education or healthcare. The main explanations for these discrepancies include lack of female role models, discrimination against females at school and in the work place, and gender stereotypes (Hill et al. 2010).
Informal STEM programs offer one potential means of improving female participation in these fields, with the “informal” meaning that the learning occurs in an out-of-school environment (Krishnamurthi and Rennie 2013). A program called Girls Inc. Operation SMART, for example, runs an initiative called Eureka!, which seeks to provide eighth grade girls with internship opportunities in math, science, and technology. The organization Techbridge offers Girls Go Techbridge, which holds learning activities, and a role model training program, which connects girls with volunteers who are passionate about motivating them to get involved in science, technology and engineering. Other initiatives include the National Science Partnership for Girl Scouts and Science Museums (NSP), Women in Natural Sciences (WINS), and Rural Girls in Science.
Survey data suggest that these programs are successful in improving girls’ understanding of science, encouraging girls to partake in various STEM-related activities and practices, and helping girls become science learners and advocates (McCreedy and Dierking 2013, Afterschool Alliance 2011, Chun and Harris 2001).
Nevertheless, research on the long-term impacts of informal STEM programs on their participation in STEM fields, as well as on future outcomes (e.g., choice of profession), remains limited (McCreedy and Dierking 2013, Fancsali 2002). Researchers have not followed these STEM participants over many years. Typical evaluations ceased after the funding period, and did not reconnect with girls to gauge the influence of the programs on their personal and/or professional decisions (McCreedy and Dierking 2013).
In addition, as is often the case, it is difficult to account for the influence of background on the choice of field and career, including parental influence (especially that of mothers). Parents play a key role in boosting girls’ confidence and participation in STEM activities. More specifically, evidence demonstrates that mothers’ education has a larger impact on their daughters’ academic performance and career choices compared to fathers’ (Hill et al. 2010; Olivetti 2013, UWE 2011, Bach et al. 1985). Mothers act as role models, help with homework, praise good performance, and attend school activities with their daughters (UWE 2011).
In other words, assessments of informal STEM programs might have a selection bias problem, whereby parents (especially mothers) with a STEM degree/career or an interest in STEM may encourage their girls to enroll in these programs in the first place.
STEM education is one way to close the gender pay gap. Successful informal STEM programs might be effective (and cost-effective) in encouraging girls to pursue STEM education and occupations. Without more long term longitudinal data, however, answers about which programs work will remain elusive. Moreover, future research should take into account the role of mothers in a girl’s choice to participate in these STEM activities in the first place. The implication, then, is to reevaluate the impact of informal STEM learning and to engage parents, particularly mothers, in these programs.