Fifteen years ago, longtime educator Karen Peterson was conducting a needs assessment in Washington and Oregon to determine how organizations could be more effective at getting girls on the path to STEM careers. She talked to schools, program providers, universities and corporations, including meeting with senior engineers at local corporate giants Boeing and Microsoft. “I met with Boeing engineers who said, ‘we’d love to mentor, but where are the girls?’” she recalls. She got a similar reaction from Microsoft: “I’d love to have people working with girls come into Microsoft. How do I find them?”

Karen Peterson
The results of Peterson’s research highlighted a critical need to effectively providing STEM education to girls — there were plenty of organizations working on the problem, but too little collaboration between them. “There was a lack of infrastructure to connect all of these groups,” she says. “They were very isolated.” 

That challenge led initially to the creation of the Northwest Girls Collaborative Project serving the Pacific Northwest, which evolved into the National Girls Collaborative Project. The organization’s goal is to create networks of shared public and private resources and encourage “collaboration of individual girl-serving STEM programs to create the tipping point for gender equity in STEM.” NGCP has fueled the creation of 33 collaboratives serving 41 states, and has facilitated connections among 22,800 organizations that serve 16.35 million girls and 8.5 million boys.

“We have this huge number of summer camps and after-school programs and teachers focusing on STEM and lots of amazing STEM curriculums,” Peterson says. “But if you look at the numbers, we aren’t making significant progress [in getting more women into STEM careers]. We have the programs, but what is it that’s going to move the needle?”

Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of longitudinal research that can prove what interventions in childhood can help elevate a woman into a position of

leadership in STEM fields and organizations, but the challenges facing girls are well-documented. For example, a research partnership between Google and Gallup focused on computer science (CS) learning in childhood and found that girls are significantly less likely to be told by a parent or teacher that they would be good at CS, less likely to be confident in studying the topic and more likely to never see anyone “like them” in the profession in the media. 

What will it take to make real progress? Here are the four things Peterson says can help set girls on the path to STEM leadership:

Get families involved. “We really need to help families understand the importance,” she says. “If they don’t know what STEM is, or computer science, or coding, we’ve lost those girls.” But that doesn’t mean families need to make a huge financial investment in expensive STEM camps for their kids. Peterson points to high-quality and accessible STEM resources and programs from such organizations as the YMCA, the Afterschool Alliance, 4-H and Girls Inc. Operation SMART

Encourage confidence and resilience. Peterson points to research that indicates girls tend toward having a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset” in their approach to learning — believing that their intelligence or ability in a particular area is static and cannot be altered with effort. Individuals with a growth mindset believe their intelligence and abilities can be expanded with effort. Research has shown children with the latter mindset to outperform their peers academically. “There’s no difference in ability between boys and girls, but girls don’t necessarily feel as confident,” she says. “Girls can often become discouraged if they don’t succeed right away.” 

Don’t just teach STEM, create connections and teach leadership. “We have so many programs with such great content, but it’s more than that,” Peterson says. “The content is definitely important but giving girls an opportunity to feel successful and work on leadership skills along with learning about STEM helps them carry on to another program.” To demonstrate relevance to a girl’s world and encourage ongoing STEM engagement, Peterson helps organizations form communities around their programming and help girls feel connected to other participants.

“Dramatically increase” female role models. Businesses that hosts site visits for girls and young women or sponsors students, should make sure they get to meet a woman. “It makes a difference,” Peterson says. “They realize they could actually have a job like that woman and have the chance to ask: ‘What was your path?’” NGCP sponsors an online role model directory called FabFems that allows girls seeking mentors to search by location, STEM profession, educational attainment, ethnicity and more to create an online mentoring relationship. “There are many women doing this, we just need more of them.”