Empowering Women through the WiSTEM2D Initiative: A Public Private Partnership

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Written by Dr. Carol O’Donnell

This past year I served as an outside advisor on a recently released Pew Research Study. This survey, conducted in 2017 and released in January 2018, used a nationally representative sample from the United States to understand the issues facing women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. One of the key findings of the report is that while there has been an increased number of women earning degrees and working in the STEM industry, women and men are often at odds over workplace equity. The perceived inequities are especially common among women in jobs who work mostly with men. In addition, the study showed that women in STEM see more gender disparities at work, especially in computer science jobs, in majority-male workplaces, or in jobs that require post-graduate degrees. Global statistics are similar.

While the study showed that over one-half of women in STEM jobs have said that they have been discriminated against at work, this feeling is not limited to STEM jobs (the same number of women said this in non-STEM jobs). However, women in STEM positions do feel isolated, are treated as if they are incompetent, believe they have been passed over for more important assignments, denied a promotion, or earned less than men doing the same job.

The study also found that the representation of women in STEM jobs varies widely, with most women in health-related jobs and fewer women in engineering and computer science jobs. This statistic is particularly important since the STEM workforce is growing, particularly among computer occupations. And while the share of women in the life sciences, physical sciences, and even engineering has grown (with the latter only growing from 12 percent to 14 percent since 1990), it has gone down for computer science jobs since 1990 (from 32 percent to only 25 percent).

Unfortunately, degrees earned do not always translate to job stability. Even if women receive degrees in their field they are not persisting. Women represented 57 percent of all college students in 2013, yet only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. Fewer women than men who majored in computer science actually work in computer jobs.

Although women have nearly attained equality with men in several formerly male-dominated fields, they remain underrepresented in the fields of STEM. One psychological study argued that one important reason for this discrepancy is that STEM careers are often perceived as less likely than careers in other fields to fulfill communal goals (e.g., working with or helping other people). The authors believed that such perceptions disproportionately affect women’s career decisions because STEM careers, relative to other careers, were perceived to impede communal goals, even when controlling for past experience and self-efficacy in science and mathematics.  Men, however, preferred positions that are “agentic”—offering agency such as power, position, or pay. Yet women who do secure STEM positions find that they are still earning less than 80 cents on every dollar a man earns and 73 percent of the salary of men with professional and doctoral degrees.

The role of STEM education

Most Americans say that K-12 (ages 5-18) public schools do a good job teaching basics, and preparing students for college. Yet, few Americans give high marks to K-12 education generally and K-12 STEM education specifically. Most Americans see a range of problems in K-12 STEM education including: parents are not involved in supporting schools, students are not willing to excel and lack interest in learning, too much emphasis on state standards, teachers don’t emphasize practical uses of ever day life learning, teachers don’t have up to date curriculum, and teachers don’t use experiential methods of learning to help students think critically and solve real-world problems. In order to fulfill the skills gap that we face as a nation, many Americans say that STEM education should be emphasized more in K-12, with a particular emphasis on educating girls and others who are typically underrepresented in STEM fields.  The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) Science Education Programme (SEP), on which I serve, is trying to solve this same problem on a global scale.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74 percent of new jobs by 2022 will require computing skills, yet only 40 percent of schools in the US teach computer programming.  Our changing world is STEM-dependent. Whether we are learning about population growth, the telecom industry, or global market economies. Each of these areas means that our future workforce will depend on STEM skills, whether we are identifying problems, thinking critically about ways to solve those problems, collecting data, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating findings to others, and applying these findings to new situations. We need to ensure that our K-12 students today are given opportunities in the classroom to behave like scientists, engineers, technologists, mathematicians, manufacturers and designers and to become scientifically literate citizens.

Research on the importance of student-teacher demographic match shows that students matched to teachers or mentors who look like them are more willing to perform better on standardized tests and face more favorable teacher perceptions. By increasing the number of STEM teachers and classroom volunteer scientists, engineers, or technologists who are female, we can inspire more girls to ultimately enter the STEM workforce. Young girls must be given the opportunity to see themselves in their STEM teachers, classroom volunteers, and other mentors who serve them.

Public Private Partnerships

In today’s economy a high-quality education is a “prerequisite for success”.  Students have to not only master the basics, but become critical thinkers, problem identifiers, and problem solvers.  Competitive advantage depends on whether a nation’s students are scientifically literate. As a result, interest has grown in “public-private partnerships” and other forms of multi-stakeholder initiatives as ways to leverage global resources and talents to address education.

There are three common components of a public-private partnership. First, it is an arrangement between public and private sectors to deliver infrastructure or services normally provided by the public sector alone. Second, it is characterized by shared goals, a division of responsibilities, continuous public-private dialogues, and supportive policy and institutional framework. Finally, the partnership must go beyond business concerns and extend into all policy areas, including education, health, arts, and culture.

Although collaborations between corporations and NGOs are not a new phenomenon, there is a call for both an increase in the number of collaborations as well as an increase in the scale of these efforts.

For example, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson (J&J)—a company founded in part by eight trailblazing women more than a century ago and today remains committed to igniting the power of women to improve human and societal health—three Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (the Smithsonian Science Education Center, Junior Achievement, and FHI360) are working together to help girls of all ages across the globe to stay on the STEM track through the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing & Design (WiSTEM2D) initiative.

The J&J WiSTEM2D Youth Pillar program is aimed at engaging girls between the ages of 5 and 18 across the world through initiatives designed to spark interest in STEM at a young age. Together, we are leveraging the talent and experiences across the private sector provided by employee volunteers to engage young girls in hands-on career-focused STEM2D experiential learning activities developed by the NGOs. Young girls are working directly with female and male employees in STEM2D fields with the hope of sparking their interest and curiosity in the field. To date, after two years of activity, this public private partnership has reached over 50,000 girls (and boys) by engaging their interest in science, technology, engineering and math, manufacturing and design in all aspects of their lives.

Ultimately, with the help of two other pillars, we are putting an emphasis on STEM careers, building a pipeline from the early teens through higher education and into the workforce. We are taking concrete steps to support young people, particularly girls, of all ages to pursue STEM through the WiSTEM2D program.

While many view these statistics as a “Women in STEM” crisis, we see this as a tremendous opportunity. If we want to solve the skills gap in STEM, the public and private sectors across the globe—including governments—have to work together to engage more young girls (and boys) in active STEM2D learning and support them on their path to persist in STEM careers.

About the author: As Director of Smithsonian Science Education Center, Dr. O’Donnell is responsible for all operational activities and planning for the unit. With nearly a decade of experience at the U.S. Department of Education and 20+ years of science teaching in K-16 classrooms, Carol has expertise in education policy, professional development, cognition and student learning, curriculum development, and education research.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the print edition of the 2018 G7 Summit magazine.