According to five year estimates, women comprise 48% of the U.S. workforce but only 24% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers. This problem both limits opportunities for women and hurts our national competitiveness. Research identifies an underlying cause of the dearth of women pursuing STEM careers: young women begin to lose interest in math in science in middle school. The Collegeboard Advanced Placement results from 2011 are a shocking example of the disparity in STEM participation. Of those who took the Computer Science AP exam, only 18% were female, and of those taking the engineering and math Physics C AP, only 23% were female. In contrast, women took 54% of all AP exams. Interestingly, a study conducted using the results of the American Math Competition indicated that the top female performers in high level math are concentrated in a few elite schools around the country, suggesting that many young women are not reaching their mathematic potential and that the learning environment is a critical factor. In fact, studies show that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is not due to lower aptitude, but complex early social influences that begin in middle school, and that girls’ interest in STEM increases with the presence of female role models, and encouragement about their abilities. Taken together, these data establish the broad failure to engage women in STEM fields during early education, and suggest strategies to address this critical problem.
My proposal to address this complex problem is to expand the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program to include high schools nationwide. The NSF’s ADVANCE program aims to increase the representation of women in academic positions in STEM careers, “thereby contributing to the development of a more diverse science and engineering workforce”. Grants are available to colleges and universities that propose effective strategies for addressing this issue based on regional factors. They must also include a provision to monitor the success of programs and provide statistical evidence of the program’s progress.
In order to combat the issue of women self-selecting out of STEM careers as early as high school, the ADVANCE program must be expanded to incorporate the U.S. high school system. The expanded ADVANCE program would motivate schools to create effective, measurable, and local solutions to the problem of women dropping out of STEM. Successful proposals would require the development of specific metrics and provisions to monitor success. A key feature of this expanded ADVANCE program is a reliance on grants to incentivize the development of innovative proposals. Thus, while certain strategies such as single-sex classes, mentoring/role model collaborations with universities or industry, and mandatory STEM requirements may be used, the program would require schools to choose the strategies that they believe will be effective given local capabilities and individual conditions. By asking schools to identify best practices, we can help them to engage with communities and local resources and thereby encourage more young women to continue to high levels of science, technology, engineering, and math.