Skip to content

How Can After-School Programs Close the STEM Gender Gap?

Each year, the United Nations reserves a special day in its calendar to raise awareness about the STEM gender gap and its implications for wider society.

boy lying on bed playing with red and blue toy truck
Photo by Robo Wunderkind / Unsplash

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, as it is known, aims “to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls” – and we were reminded this year by UN Secretary-General António Guterres that “we can all do our part to unleash our world’s enormous untapped talent."

As an educational consultancy and program design studio that creates impact programs for youth, this got us thinking:

The true costs of the STEM gender gap

This video from UNESCO explains the need for inclusivity in the digital revolution.

It is a credit to the work of organizations such as the UN that the STEM gender gap is quite well publicized. You may have heard some of the top-level stats:

However, what is not often understood are the wider social implications of this gap – and how this unequal representation in STEM fields plays out in the lives of real people around the world.

Firstly, it should be mentioned that gender imbalance in fields such programming and AI software development has an effect on all of us in the digital era, with researchers at New York University linking this lack of female representation to the fact that “Gender-neutral internet searches yield results that nonetheless produce male-dominated output.”

However, when you look at the problem in terms of income potential, the issue becomes even more serious. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) reports that “a typical STEM worker earns two-thirds more than those employed in other fields.” When one also factors in that “some of the highest-earning STEM occupations, such as computer science and engineering, have the lowest percentages of women workers,” the stark economic effect of the STEM gender gap is that women are much less likely to benefit from jobs in high-paying fields such as science and technology fields. This lack of economic empowerment, of course, can also have knock-on effects, such as reduced freedom of movement and diminished social status.

Moreover, though we all live in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world – where the global workforce faces unprecedented challenges posed by automation and other technologies – it is still predicted that women will bear the brunt of this disruption. According to UNICEF, “Between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles. To weather this disruption, women (and men) need to be skilled, mobile and tech-savvy, but women face pervasive barriers on each.” Some of these “pervasive barriers,” such as gender stereotypes and a lack of prominent female role models in STEM fields, will be addressed in the next section of this article.

In summary, as the world continues to change, the effects of the digital divide are becoming ever more pronounced. The STEM gender gap is an important faultline that needs to be addressed to ensure a more equitable future for all. In the words of the 2021 UNESCO Science Report, “There is a risk that the Fourth Industrial Revolution could perpetuate the gender imbalance, since women remain a minority in digital information technology, computing, physics, mathematics and engineering.”

How can after-school programming help?

Children look at technical, science equipment
Photo by UK Black Tech / Unsplash

According to The Equality Equation, a study commissioned by the World Bank Group, “The leaky STEM pipeline [for women and girls] is path dependent, starting early and continuing throughout the life cycle.”

However, there is good news for organizations looking to develop meaningful out-of-school time (OST) programs to increase STEM participation amongst girls and young women. The Equality Equation report states that: “extracurricular activities, such as competitions, clubs, and robotics and coding camps, offer promise in building interest, fostering positive attitudes, inspiring greater confidence, and developing relevant skills in STEM studies and careers among both boys and girls.”

Our review of the research on how to program for the STEM gender gap revealed three key themes:

According to Why So Few?, a research paper released by the AAUW, the “stereotype that men are better than women in STEM areas can affect girls’ performance, how they judge their performance and their aspirations.”

Their recommendation is to talk about the fact that these stereotypes exist, and that it takes conscious effort to “think past them” and create an environment of inclusion. The researchers recommend that the best way to do this is to “create a growth-mindset environment in the classroom by emphasizing that intellectual skills can be improved with effort and perseverance, and that anyone who works hard can succeed.”

These efforts should be supported by programs, lessons and activities aimed at spreading the word about the achievements of women and girls in STEM fields.

In fact, according to the researchers Susana González-Pérez, Ruth Mateos de Cabo and Milagros Sáinz,“the optimal way to encourage young girls to pursue emerging high-growth roles, particularly those requiring STEM math skills, is to expose them to the professional and personal experiences of actual female role models with a successful professional trajectory in STEM fields. This could be due, in part, to the increase in the feelings of belonging and inclusion in these domains that they experience after having been exposed to female role models who are successful in STEM fields.”

The final important consideration for programmers looking to increase STEM participation amongst women and girls relates to building scientific skills and technical competencies.

A UNESCO study entitled Missing Out On Half Of The World’s Potential highlights the crucial role of “building confidence in STEM subjects,” and this idea is developed by Maria Barron and Raja Bentaouet Kattan (writing for the World Bank), who claim that the kind of support provided by OST programs can be instrumental in boosting confidence among girls studying STEM. These writers identify “mentorship, skills development and networking opportunities” as key factors, and they also point out that “linking STEM curricula to real world situations (using interactive experiences, project-based learning, and other strategies) tends to appeal more to girls rather than using more traditional methods.”

Looking for some inspiration?

Learn how two girls from Tanzania are on the path of empowerment with support from the Joint Programme by UNESCO, UNFPA and UN Women.

Around the world, a range of organizations have come up with creative, impactful ways of attracting more girls and women to studying science and engineering. Here are some examples to inspire your next inclusive STEM program!

What good is innovation if there’s no human impact?”

– Kristina Tsvetanova