5 Ways to Be an Ally to Girls and Women in STEM

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If you think of gender equity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as a “women’s issue” we encourage you to think again! Increasing diverse participation in STEM fields is not a women’s issue nor is it an issue that only impacts girls, women, and other historically marginalized groups. Diversity, equity, and inclusivity are important human issues that impact us all. Research also demonstrates that diversity is just good business. Businesses are shown to benefit from diverse perspectives that bring innovation to their companies.

So how can we ensure STEM industries thrive and benefit from diverse perspectives when men continue to outnumber women in many STEM fields like computer science and engineering (see: NGCP’s State of Girls and Women in STEM)? More than ever, we have a growing need for majority group allies working in STEM fields to advocate for greater gender equity and shifting cultures in careers where they drastically outnumber women. Educators, parents, and caregivers are also needed as allies to help interrupt biases and bridge encouragement and exposure gaps from an early age.

Not sure where to start? If you are an educator, parent, caregiver, or STEM professional we are here to help! Check out the 5 tips listed below taken from our recent NGCP webinar “Learn to Be an Ally to Girls and Women in STEM” featuring speakers Joanne Esch, Senior Research Associate at the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), Snehal Bhakta, the Career and Technical Education Administrator for the Clark County School District, and Joshua Sneideman, the Vice President at Learning Blade.

1. Educate Yourself on Allyship – What does it mean to be an ally and why are allies important? It is okay if you do not already know the answer to these questions! Allies are people who actively support gender equity at work, in school, and in social settings. The NCWIT Male Allies and Advocates Toolkit is a great place to start exploring information like why majority group allies are important in STEM fields and what they should be advocating for. The toolkit explains that allies advocate for and work to create more inclusive environments or cultures that will ultimately benefit everyone. Just as importantly, the toolkit also provides key information on what NOT to do as an ally. For example, it advises that allies should “avoid approaches that focus on “helping” or sometimes even “fixing” individual women. These approaches are not research-based and can come across as patronizing, even when well-intentioned.”

2. Disrupt Biases – Allies can work to recognize and push against biases related to girls and women in STEM. In our recent webinar, Joanne Esch, from NCWIT, explains that “there is a broad social bias, and it works its way into our educational systems and workplaces in all kinds of ways. A key piece of the work of allies is learning to recognize how bias shows up and interrupt it.” Think about your educational, social, or professional setting. Are there ways that biases are showing up that you can disrupt? For example, are there certain people who often end up doing note-taking or other kinds of tasks? Are there some people who dominate conversations in your setting? Become aware of these biases and think of ways you can foster more inclusive meetings, task assignments, or learning opportunities so that everyone has equal opportunities to learn and be heard.

When it comes to addressing biases with other individuals, the NCWIT Toolkit reminds us to always assume the best intentions of someone who makes a mistake. “Remember this is not about blame but about us all working together to correct these biases. Acknowledge their effort and explain how they might improve their approach in the future.”

3. Bridge the Encouragement Gap – Receiving encouragement from parents, educators, caregivers, supervisors, and mentors can make a big difference in the persistence of girls and women in STEM. Providing encouraging messages to girls (and all youth) exploring STEM activities and concepts from an early age is something important that allies can do. When giving this encouragement, allies should try to foster a “growth mindset” or the idea that intelligence and skills are not fixed but instead can change and grow incrementally through practice and hard work. Fostering a growth mindset can help counter the stereotype that some people are just “naturally” gifted at math and science. What does this look like in practice? It can look like providing encouragement that praises hard work, persistence, and overcoming obstacles – not just the final product of someone’s work.  

4. Talk to Other Potential Allies – You may be surprised how many people are interested in getting involved with diversity efforts but are hesitant to get involved because they aren’t sure how to get started or they are afraid of doing or saying something “wrong.” Stories and conversations with allies can help reduce fears and motivate people to get involved. This can be as simple as sharing your own experiences as a majority-group ally.

When talking to potential allies, Snehal Bhakta shares that “knowing their reason why is really important” in our recent webinar. In Snehal’s case, he shares that his daughter is his motivation. Listen and learn about what might motivate a potential ally to act. Maybe it is a daughter, a sister, a student, or a personal experience. Once you have tapped into their “why” there are a lot of other ways you can share valuable information while talking to potential allies. For example, you could share a research finding you found interesting or a solution you have tried (see more ideas here). Remember, it is important to emphasize that it is okay to make mistakes and take risks during this conversation!        

5. Increase Exposure from an Early Age – The issue of female representation in STEM is complicated and begins long before women enter the workforce. Beginning at an early age, stereotypes have the power to influence children’s interest, confidence, and identification with STEM. Joshua Sneidemen, VP of Learning Blade and dad to three daughters, talks about the importance of early socialization and exposure to relatable female role models in STEM in our recent webinar. He explains that “young girls can’t say they want to be a wind turbine technician if no one’s ever exposed them to that.”

Exposing children to diverse STEM role models from a range of careers can help break stereotypes about who can and should pursue STEM. Allies can help to introduce girls to positive female role models through books, media, or at in-person events! The IF/THEN® Collection, managed by NGCP, is a great resource to start with. It is a free digital library with photos, videos, posters, activities, and other assets featuring diverse women STEM innovators — all available for educational and other non-commercial use.

You can also check out NGCP’s list of useful picture books that showcase female characters in STEM stories here and access more information about addressing stereotypes from an early age in this NGCP webinar.

When it comes to allyship, remember that you will probably make mistakes along your journey (we are all human after all). No one is perfect, so remember to accept feedback with the desire to learn and improve your words, actions, and approaches. Communicate an honest interest in understanding more and in improving your approach in the future.

Want to learn more about allyship? View the NGCP Webinar: Learn to be an Ally to Girls and Women in STEM and check out some of the other resources below:

Amanda Sullivan

Amanda Sullivan

Amanda brings over a decade of experience in education, research, and advocacy for girls in STEM to her role as Senior Program Developer at NGCP. She is passionate about breaking gender stereotypes and providing all children with equal access and opportunities to succeed within (and beyond) STEM from an early age.

Amanda is the author of the book Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood and co-author of the ScratchJr Coding Cards: Creative Coding Activities for Children 5+.  Amanda has a Master’s and Ph.D. in Child Development from Tufts University and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology & Drama from Bennington College. She is happily married to her college sweetheart and a proud mom to two energetic children and one lazy cat.

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