What Motivates Girls to Study Science, Technology, Engineering or Math?

September 8, 2011

A new survey by Microsoft and Harris Interactive sheds light on why students decide to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). You can read the overall findings from this fascinating study here. We'll focus on one critical message that emerges from the results: Pay attention to girls!

It's well known by now that women make up a small share of the overall STEM workforce, and that they're especially scarce in fields like physics, engineering and computer science. The Microsoft poll suggests that girls and boys go into science for different reasons. If we understand these differences, we might do a better job of steering more girls into STEM.

One big difference between girls and boys seems to be their response to popular culture. Male students (61%) were much more likely than female students (29%) to cite games or toys as their inspiration for going into STEM. They were also more likely (55% to 46%) to point to TV, movies or books. In fact, they were more likely to cite any of these influences than they were to credit a class or a teacher (51%). Girls, by contrast, pointed to the influence of classes and teachers (68%).

What explains the difference? Here’s one theory: The kinds of toys, shows and books that feature STEM appeal to more boys than girls. Can the popular culture do more to get girls excited about STEM?

The survey also suggests that visible role models are in short supply, especially for girls. Eleven percent of male students and a scant 6% of female students said a famous person in the field got them interested in STEM. Girls may also be less likely to find role models in their own families. Fathers (58%) were more apt than mothers (42%) to say they were confident in their abilities to help with math and science homework.

So how do we get more girls to go down the STEM path? For one, we need to find messages that resonate with girls and start pushing them out through far more channels than we currently do. One such message (among many): STEM can help you change the world. Microsoft’s survey confirms what poll after poll has found: Female students (49%) are more likely than male students (34%) to say they chose STEM to make a difference (49% vs. 34% males).

It is by no means an easy task to get more girls interested in STEM. We’re up against centuries of stereotypes and a firmly entrenched popular culture. That said, the will to get more girls into STEM seems stronger than ever. Parents see the importance of STEM for girls as well as boys. The administration has made it a priority. And employers are eager to expand the base of STEM talent.

Tags: women & girls, science, technology, engineering, math