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“I want to be an engineer!” How to keep girls in STEM through inclusive education

By Michelle Dusko Biferie, UBC Faculty of Education doctoral student, Vancouver


It’s time to change how we approach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education by giving girls an equal footing with inclusive STEM education. There is a STEM workforce shortage in North America, and our technological, research, and development industries are losing ground to international competition.(6) Unfortunately, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM in Canada: only 34% of Canadians with a STEM post-secondary degree (Stats Canada, 2019) and only 23% of the STEM workforce (2) are women. In contrast, in Europe more women than men are in STEM careers: 51.3% and 48.7%, respectively. (1) Our young women aren’t getting the support they need to succeed in STEM despite popular girls-only STEM programming during their primary and secondary education. More problematically, the not-enough-girls-in-STEM problem is framed as a “women’s issue”; however, it needs the full participation of all genders, schools, communities, and parents to encourage young women to choose and stay in STEM. 

...women continue to be underrepresented in STEM in Canada: only 34% of Canadians with a STEM post-secondary degree and only 23% of the STEM workforce are women.

Gender differences in STEM academic and professional achievement largely depend on social, cultural, and associated psychological factors. The recent increase in girls-only STEM education programs addresses mostly individual psychological factors, such as stereotype threat, poor STEM identity, low confidence, lack of positive female role models, and lack of a sense of belonging in STEM. (3) School and non-profit organization partnerships that enable sharing resources and teaching practices yield best results: young women report a stronger STEM identity, greater feeling of belonging in STEM, greater confidence in their abilities, more friendships and support with and from other like-minded girls, and more knowledge about and interest in pursuing a STEM career. (4,5,6) Examples of girls-only approaches include female scientists discussing their career paths, “girlified” STEM activities such as lipstick- and soap-making to illustrate STEM principles, discussions about what it means to be a woman in STEM and the facilitators and barriers to equal participation. However, these programs’ temporary successes still don’t translate into significant growth in the number of girls entering STEM programs and careers.


Despite the significant gains for girls participating in these programs, girls-only STEM programs are a Band-Aid solution, and these solutions place the problem on girls themselves. These programs attempt to bolster girls’ strengths while ignoring the rest of us who can promote equitable participation in STEM. Girls-only programs reinforce the misguided idea that girls need “special approaches” and “girl-centric” activities to thrive as budding engineers and scientists. These programs support girls in isolation from the world they actually live in. Girls alone cannot change the disheartening statistics of Canada’s STEM workforce composition. As parents, educators, and school administrators of any and all genders, we also need to change.

Girls-only programs reinforce the misguided idea that girls need “special approaches” and “girl-centric” activities to thrive as budding engineers and scientists.  

Systems thinking has us seeing the student, the school environment, and the home as all interdependent and dynamic influences on the appeal of STEM for girls. Instead of focusing on parts of the whole (i.e., girls), we need to look at how changes in teacher attitudes and approaches, school climate, and parental influence can work synergistically to promote change. Instead of just addressing the symptoms of the problem of girls’ weaker STEM identities, we try to be courageous in avoiding simple, Band-Aid solutions (like girls-only programming) and see change as a process that permeates all parts of the system. (8)


In other words, we must focus on the system if we genuinely want girls to succeed in STEM. We need to be the change we want to see. Below is a series of tips on how to help young women along in their STEM journeys based on the roles we share in their lives. 



What the research says: most STEM pedagogy focuses on teaching STEM subjects to boys and students with an aptitude for STEM. Inclusive STEM pedagogy focuses on universal and whole-child approaches that are effective for girls and marginalized and vulnerable students. More traditional approaches to classroom management can inadvertently create an uncomfortable learning environment for such students and reinforce gendered expectations of STEM academic performance and stereotypes. (3,6,7)


What you can do

  • Create an inclusive classroom that is gender-neutral. Everyone is an engineer or a scientist.

  • Be mindful of stereotype threat. As a leader, students look up to you and notice how you think about them. Set high expectations for all. 

  • Make STEM a social activity: promote collaborative, hands-on, project-based experiences that focus on communication and teamwork and encourage exploration, imagination, and ownership of the learning products. Assign specific roles to students irrespective of gender and cultivate critical thinking and personal discoveries. These approaches foster greater STEM identities.

  • Provide specific, positive feedback on effort, strategies, and behaviours to improve self-confidence. Enable students to learn from failure and emphasize that skills can be learned through practice and problem-solving.


School leaders

What the research says: you don’t need to be a STEM school to encourage inclusive teaching of STEM. (6,7)


What you can do

  • Build connections with industry and community organizations that promote STEM education. Create programs that all students can participate in regardless of ability or gender. 

  • Provide leadership in cross-grade and intra-school STEM activities.

  • Promote a positive school culture where students feel safe to be themselves and where all students are allowed to participate as equals with others. 



What the research says: parents model gendered behaviours and can influence child development through expectations around gender roles and activities. Even small children learn through parental modelling and unconscious biases. Parental support was seen as one of the most significant predictors of girls staying with their STEM dreams, especially in teenage years when girls’ interest in STEM wanes because of gendered cultural expectations. (3,5,6,7)

What you can do

  • Be mindful of unconscious bias and how it shows up in your choice of toys and expectations of boy and girl behaviour. 

  • Be a STEM role model; change gender roles in your family.

  • Notice and encourage your child’s interests despite pressure from family or friends.

  • Believe in your daughter and set high academic expectations for STEM. (3)


We need to move away from thinking and acting like STEM is associated with boyhood or masculinity. After all, pipettes, microscopes, and computers don’t know the gender of the person using them. Women in STEM make unique contributions to their industries, focusing on social good, promoting equality, and challenging dominant neo-liberal, profit-driven motives. (3,7) Changing our deeply ingrained cultural and social understandings of what it means to do and be in STEM will take time. In the process of change, we must give girls and women more support and recognition of their strengths in an inclusive way that benefits not just girls but everyone who wants to fulfill their dreams in STEM.


1 Women represent about half of workers in science and technology [Internet]. Available from:

3 Fernandez F, Froschl M, Lorenzetti L, Stimmer M. Investigating the importance of girls’ mathematical identity within United States STEM programmes: a systematic review. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology. 2022 Jan 25;1–41.

4 Hug S, Eyerman S. “I Like That Girl Power”: Informal/Formal Learning Ecosystems that Support Young Women’s Engagement in STEM. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. 2021 Nov 30;13(2):110-33.

5 Sultan U, Axell C, Hällström J. Bringing girls and women into STEM?: Girls’ technological activities and conceptions when participating in an all-girl technology camp. International Journal of Technology and Design Education. 2023 Sep 4.

6 Leammukda, F., An In-Depth Focus on An Emerging STEM School, A Community-Based Framework for STEM Integration, and Fostering Students’ STEM Interest [dissertation]. Minneapolis, (MN): University of Minnesota; 2019.

7 Yang K, Awad KG, Gramaglia MM, Kelly RJ, Kopec SE, Luzio NJ, Neptune KT, Pfau MJ, Purviance JL. Girls and women in STEM: A review of interventions and lifespan developmental considerations for increasing girls’ and women’s participation in STEM. 2019. Available from: Girls and Women in STEM (

8 Ndaruhutse S, Jones C, Riggall A. Why Systems Thinking Is Important for the Education Sector. Education Development Trust. 2019. Available from:


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