A notable opportunity emerged from our efforts to deconstruct research addressing the presence of women in STEM subjects and their ability to persist in these fields. Specifically, our examination focused on studies of women involved in STEM at higher education levels. Our review revealed consistent themes related to experienced gender bias, lack of institutional support and impacts of stereotype threat. The resulting effects are evident in the aggregate of attitude and behavior outcomes. They are also reflected heavily in the dispositional and situational antecedents. While college-educated women make up half of the entire U.S. workforce, they are less than 28% of the total STEM workforce (National Girls Collaborative, 2018). The importance of considering these systemic, structural and institutional factors related to the transition of girls and young women in STEM through primary and secondary schools is apparent.
A number of the studies acknowledged the importance of encouraging early interest and involvement. Developmental research on the education process suggests the back-end value of these endeavors is in individual successes and economic returns (Cannon, Karoly & Kilburn, 2005). The benefits of conducting more studies focused on the interactions between and among STEM educators and female students may expose interventions as necessary for later persistence in STEM studies and careers. Creating policies and other guided mandates affords support at more consequential points in time. In developing these early stage initiatives, there is potential for increased inclusion and influence.
The City of Atlanta provides an opportunity to explore this possibility further. Atlanta Public Schools (APS) adopted a new Charter System operating model as of June 2015. This transition enabled APS with more autonomy, more accountability for student achievement and limited state regulations/controls (APS Signature Programs, 2017). Within this operating model, each cluster of schools functions through the pedagogical lens of a particular signature program. The highlight here, rests in the fact that STEM is one of three signature programs chosen by the community and adopted under the APS Charter System Operating model. Parents, teachers and community members attributed their choice to the projected growth of STEM occupations, earnings of STEM workers versus non-STEM workers and greater achievement of STEM school scholars (APS Signature Programs, 2017).
Providing educators and institutions with keys to dismantle the multitude of disparities reflected in the low numbers of women in STEM careers is essential. Designing a study that assesses the achievements of schools/clusters participating in the STEM signature program, and measuring the achievement of students between schools/clusters in the other two signature programs, may do this. The prospective multi-tiered, mixed method study could establish a link that helps our nation create a more suitable educational foundation. This base can serve as the springboard from which young female scholars can be encouraged to engage, persist and thrive in STEM curiosities and ultimately, STEM occupations.