Flaura Koplin Winston, scientific director of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Center for Injury Research and Prevention, wrote this for Philly.com's "Healthy Kids" blog.
I was so excited to hear about the new action figures and toys that appeal to the hidden engineer/inventor/scientist in our daughters. You have GoldieBlox, Superstruct Pinklets, pink Mega Bloks, Roominate, and a robot-themed Lottie doll with a robot accessory!
Early on, there were no "girl toys" that appealed to me, a budding engineer and doctor. But I persisted, largely due to my parents, who rejected notions like "Don't let your girl babies grow up to be engineers."
Despite decades of effort, women make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers in the U.S., according to the National Academies. What a shame.
A recent National Science Foundation report countered myths about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). I adapted the content to make parents aware of their own biases.
Myth: From starting school, girls are less interested than boys in science.
Most girls and boys start elementary school with similar positive attitudes about science. The culture around STEM is what turns the girls off as they get older. At our Children's Hospital injury center, we're working to disprove this myth; our large student program recruits the best trainees, and women are well-represented. They have gone on to STEM careers and advanced degrees.
Myth: Classroom efforts to raise girls' interest in STEM run the risk of turning off the boys.
Teaching STEM to increase the interest of girls also helps boys. Good teachers know that inquiry-based and hands-on learning works best for science and math. (We are lagging many countries in boys' entering STEM, too.)
Myth: Science and math teachers no longer favor male students.
From grade school to hiring and promotion, biases exist. Teachers call on boys more in STEM classes. More men than women are promoted, even when controlling for research productivity. Women still are paid less than male counterparts in STEM. We have not solved the bias problem (but we are trying).
Myth: When girls just aren't interested in science, parents can't do much to motivate them.
Parents are crucial to girls' interest in STEM. Do not discourage daughters. Expose them to science museums, and introduce them to women in these professions. Buy toys and games for the holidays that involve building, experimenting, and solving problems. Make sure their schools are mentoring them well in courses and career paths, and giving support as needed.
Myth: In college, changing the STEM curriculum may water down key "sink-or- swim" courses.
Reality: I recall the "weeding-out" process in my early engineering courses. The "dropout" effect is stronger among women in STEM majors, not because they are failing, but because of the high standards women often set. They can perceive B's as inadequate and drop out, while men with C's persist.