The bad news is that the maths and science skills we need for South Africa to grow stronger economically are seriously lacking. The good news is that young girls have a far higher interest and aptitude for science and maths than we realised


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise 48% of the US workforce, yet they make up just 24% of STEM workers. In other words, half as many women are working in STEM jobs as one might expect if gender representation in STEM professions mirrored the overall workforce. Much has been written about the systematic bias in hiring and promotion practices, workplace norms, behaviour, and harassment that hinder women’s progress in the workplace. However, much earlier on, the gap forms in women’s participation and interest in STEM: tests conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show the largest shift in girls’ vs boys’ science and math scores occurs between the ages of nine and 10 years old. This gap continues to grow larger over time.

Kids’ Vision, a Bay-Area non-profit designed to empower girls by increasing their interest, confidence, and motivation in STEM, is helping girls to develop attitudes at an early age, before they view themselves as having limited ability. Kids’ Vision operates as an after-school programme, bringing third to sixth grade girls in Silicon Valley to technology companies, and provides women engineer role-models who demonstrate how the STEM subjects that girls are learning in school can be applied in their careers. Founded in 2014 by Maria Celerier, Kids’ Vision operates in Bay Area companies such as Tesla, Mozilla and Visa, and with impressive results. Jo Boaler, Stanford University Professor of Mathematics Education, and a Kids’ Vision advisor, explains that “Kids’ Vision is an amazing programme and so needed, even in the heart of Silicon Valley—it can change their whole trajectory as they go through school”.

Kids’ Vision developed a survey of girls (conducted both before and after participating in the after-school programme) to better understand its impact and the girls’ attitudes toward STEM. The survey results provided a number of insightful findings:

Girls actually do like STEM-related activities

Lack of interest in STEM is often cited as one of the main reasons why girls opt out of STEM-related careers. However, when asked how much they agreed with statements such as, “I like to understand how things work”, “I like puzzles and solving problems”, and “I like doing hands-on science projects”. Approximately 70% of the girls indicated that they like these activities before participating in Kids’ Vision programme—while close to 100% stated they liked puzzles and solving problems after having completed the programme. This debunks the myth that, from the time they start school, most girls are less interested in science than boys are. This idea that girls do enjoy STEM activities has propelled the successful toymaker Goldieblox, whose aim is to inspire the future generation of female engineers by “bolstering their confidence in spatial skills while giving young inventors the tools they need to build and create amazing things”.

The importance of teaching a “growth” vs “fixed” mindset

Based on the research evidence, Jo Boaler says that it is evident that when children develop a “growth mindset” that they believe intelligence can be learned. As a result, these children grow through exercise, as opposed to the mindset that they have been born with a limited, fixed potential. Based on girls’ agreement with statements such as “People who are good at a particular skill were born with a particular ability”, “I try to do things I’m naturally good at and avoid things that are hard for me”, and “Smart people don’t make mistakes”, approximately 90% of participants had a growth mindset after the Kids’ Vision programme, compared to less than 40% prior to the curriculum. Both our educators and society can do more to encourage girls to embrace challenges and learn from mistakes —as well as through eliminating fixed mindset notions such as “Math class is tough!”, as Teen Talk Barbie once famously proclaimed.

After-school programmes can increase girls’ confidence and motivation overall

Interactive programmes such as Kids’ Vision (coupled with strong parent and teacher support) increases girls’ confidence in their abilities and how they perceive themselves relative to their peers. When asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “I’m smart enough to have a career in STEM”, the girls’ confidence increased from roughly 50% agreement pre-programme, to 90% post-programme. When asked “I’m more motivated to do well at school than other girls my age”, and “I’m smarter than other girls my age”, the change was even more pronounced. This ranged from close to 0% agreement pre-programme to 30% of girls post-programme who believed they were smarter than other girls their age. A research study performed by the Girl Scouts of America revealed similar results, suggesting that perception of one’s ability or capability is more important for a girl than her actual ability or knowledge—and changing this perception can lead to greater entries into STEM domains.

Better understanding of what motivates girls’ career choices

Data studies by Science Magazine showed that girls with high math ability also often have high verbal ability, and they thus consider a wider range of occupations compared to their male peers with similar math skills who choose STEM. These results hint that girls think differently about choosing careers to which they should aspire. When the girls were asked what job they want to have when they grow older, prior to the Kids’ Vision programme, more than 90% chose non-STEM jobs, particularly where they could care for people or animals (ie teachers, doctors and veterinarians). After completing the Kids’ Vision programme, up to 30% chose STEM jobs as their future career choice. Interestingly, both before and after the programme, when asked to rank the most important factors when thinking about what career they will choose, almost 100% of the girls selected “to help people” and to “make a difference in the world” as their top two motivations.

In order to encourage more girls into STEM careers, our educators need to better make the connection for girls of how STEM-related work helps the community and the environment. Maria Celerier, the founder of Kids’ Vision, agrees, adding that she has “witnessed these magical moments when girls change their perceptions about what they can do with STEM”.

Girls need more mentors and role models of successful women in STEM

When girls see positive women engineer role-models, and are shown examples of accomplished women scientists, it provides them with a greater sense of possibility about the person they could become. The Kids’ Vision programme works by providing real (mostly female) role models from Silicon Valley tech companies who can serve as mentors and explain what they do on a daily basis in their careers. Prior to participating in Kids’ Vision programme at Visa, 99% of the girls said they had not met a woman in STEM before. Prior to that same Visa programme, only 30% agreed that they could “explain what STEM is to a five-year-old”, compared to 100% after programme completion. According to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research on Gender in Science and Engineering (GSE), mentoring is one of the most effective interventions to help young women choose and sustain a STEM educational path and subsequent STEM career.

Support at home matters too

Most agree that career support from parents, in particular, plays a key role through their interest and support of girls pursuing science, technology, engineering and math. Both before and after participating in the Kids’ Vision after-school programme, 90% to 100% of girls agreed with the statements “My dad/mom thinks that I’m smart enough to have any career I want”, and “My dad/mom encourages me to think about what I want to be when I grow up”. However, at the same time, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics suggests that Hispanic girls (who make up a significant portion of Kids’ Vision participants), have had less exposure to STEM, less adult support for pursuing STEM, and are less likely to know someone in a STEM career. At a recent Kids’ Vision programme, Sheri Sheppard, professor at Stanford’s School of Engineering, hosted a workshop for the girls’ parents on how stereotypes influence girls and how to teach a growth mindset. The session, also translated into Spanish by two Kids’ Vision facilitators, received an overwhelmingly positive response. “The parents were so thankful for the help, asking so many questions, in what they felt was a comfortable, safe environment,” said Monica Blanco, Kids’ Vision board member and Google employee.

These encouraging findings tell us that after-school programmes such as Kids’ Vision are succeeding in altering girls’ mindsets. At the critical age of third to sixth grade, it is hugely important to provide girls with the encouragement, exposure, and mentorship that they need to help fill the STEM pipeline and close the gender gap. Kids’ Vision’s mission is to empower girls by increasing their interest, confidence, motivation, and knowledge of STEM. Further, we all—parents, teachers, friends—can help our girls to develop useful learning attitudes early in life, before their beliefs in a limited ability become engraved in their vision of themselves.

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