Feminine Norms and STEM: Working to Fill the Holes of a Leaky Pipeline


Health starts in our homes, workplaces, and communities – and for young girls, it also starts in schools.

Access to education and access to and achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects are key to higher-paying jobs and career advancement later in life, but many girls continue to miss these opportunities.

The White House, which has recently committed $240 Million in new STEM Commitments, has acknowledged the importance of women in STEM, in part by hosting a series of roundtables that feature diverse voices in the STEM fields. This included sharing the stories of prominent female leaders in different fields, such as Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who was at the forefront of computer and programming language development, and Katherine Johnson, who contributed greatly to the USA’s air and space programs by incorporating computing tools.

Addressing the lack of female role models is an important tool for keeping young women in STEM – as is addressing well-known and well-documented barriers like stereotype threat, unconscious teacher bias, and parental attitudes. Yet the field continues to overlook or address a barrier that every girl knows is a significant factor in choosing STEM –feminine norms.

As girls grow older, they internalize feminine ideals that force them to make a choice between excelling at STEM or being feminine. Given that very few people, particularly adolescent girls, are equipped to challenge societal pressures to be feminine, STEM loses out in favor of being pretty and popular.

For instance, as part of an ongoing project for Motorola Solutions Foundation, in focus groups with girls in Denver, HMACS and TrueChild asked – Can’t you be pretty and popular with boys and also be good at science and math? They all looked at each other and burst out laughing, replying “Not in middle school you can’t!”

Attitudes like these are well-known to every middle-school parent and teacher, yet our national STEM strategy continues to ignore them. In response to these challenges, with support from Motorola, True Child and HMACS have developed a model curriculum adapted from Promundo’s “Program M.”. This mini-curriculum of a half-dozen hour-long exercises provides activities that highlight, challenge and ultimately change rigid feminine norms.

To date, the pilots have shown significant change in the girls’ attitudes towards math and science, as well as shifts in their perceptions of what it means to be a girl. Anecdotally, we know the curriculum is also affecting facilitators who realize their own unconscious bias in how they treat girls and, as a result, work to change their own behaviors.

Working with community partners, such as Chicago’s Project Exploration, we are ready to expand to new sites and are developing a train the trainer protocol to assist with widespread dissemination. By acknowledging and changing feminine norms, we are working to fill the holes of STEM’s “leaky pipeline.”


This post was co-authored by Marci Eads, PhD and Robyn Odendahl of HMA Community Strategies, and Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of TrueChild



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