What Can Teachers Do? And More Questions on Solving the Equation

Members of the panel from the launch of AAUW's Solving the Equation report in Silicon Valley

Members of the panel from the launch of AAUW's Solving the Equation report in Silicon Valley

March 31, 2015

We didn’t get to address all of your questions about Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing during our launch event, so our researchers wanted to answer a few more queries here on our blog. Read on to find out what you can do to encourage women in engineering and computing, and download our full findings for more.

1) Why should we encourage girls to go into these fields if women who are there are leaving?

As former Smith College president Ruth Simmons once said: “Engineers literally design and build much of the human environment. Women must not accept such a marginal role in so important a field.” Computing professionals, likewise, design and build technology that increasingly shapes nearly every aspect of our lives. Women’s perspectives and talents must be part of future technological innovation.

In addition, engineering and computing are growing areas full of high-quality, high-paying jobs. Eighty percent of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs are in engineering and computing — 5.5 million jobs as of 2013! And 94 percent of workers in the 25 highest-paying STEM occupations are engineers or computing professionals. Engineering and computing can be important sources of financial security for women and their families.

There is a lot of work to be done to create educational and workplace environments that support women in these fields, but we are at a moment in time when employers are expressing real interest to do what they need to do to bring more women into their technical workforces.

2) When is the best time to reach girls and women to encourage them to consider careers in engineering or computing?

Only 6 percent of women enter college intending to major in engineering, compared with 19 percent of men. And only 1 percent of women students intend to major in computer science!

Solving the Equation
Want to help more women get into computer science?

Read AAUW’s research report
about how few women are working
in this field and what can be done.

Differences in interest, not achievement, are primarily responsible for this discrepancy. And these differences in interest start in elementary and middle school.

Research highlighted in Solving the Equation shows that emphasizing what people can do with engineering and computing is important for building interest in these fields. Girls who see these fields as opportunities to solve problems and design the future are more likely to consider engineering and computing careers as a good fit for their skills, interests, and values. Programs like AAUW’s Tech Trek help change the image of engineering and computing work by exposing middle school girls to exciting, hands-on projects.

Even colleges and universities can help attract women to these fields. Harvey Mudd College increased their percentage of women in computer science programs by emphasizing the broad applications of computer science, exposing students to role models in the field and encouraging all students, even those without a programming background, to consider computing.

3) What can parents do to encourage their daughters to pursue engineering or computing?

Research from Google identified social encouragement from family, friends, or educators as the factor most likely to increase girls’ interest in computer science. So parents can do a lot!

Check out programs like Tech Trek, which spark interest through hands-on projects. Support your daughters’ curiosity, especially in building, coding, and tinkering, areas where girls and women often have less experience than men.

Encourage girls to see that math, engineering, and programming skills are learned, not innate. Growth mindsets help all students by reframing struggles as learning opportunities and chances to get better, not reasons that they don’t belong.

Finally, emphasize the opportunities your daughters will have to shape the future. These are exciting fields! Engineers and computer scientists design our world, from cars to clothing to projects that seem like science fiction.

4) How can teachers attract and support a diverse group of students?

Subtle cues can affect whether a student or employee feels like she belongs. Even shifting the office or classroom decorations from stereotypically “geeky” posters like video games or science fiction movies can help avoid reinforcing the dominant image of who belongs in technical fields.

Researchers have found that something as simple as framing adversity as something that everyone experiences at one time or another can increase a sense of belonging. That is also part of building a growth mindset and reminding your students that engineering and computing skills are learned, not innate. The person in the class with the most coding experience isn’t the only one who can become a computer programmer.

If you can, separate classes based on experience, as Harvey Mudd did with their introductory computer science courses (read about it in our report). Even when students are learning the same skills, being surrounded by people with the same level of experience can help avoid making students feel like they don’t belong.

Demonstrate how students will be able to apply the things they learn. Even at the introductory level, projects that can be applied in real life are motivating, and fun, for all students.

This post was written by Research Intern Jean DeOrnellas.


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