Getting Girls Into STEM: Then Versus Now

November 14, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Last month, I attended Geek Girl Con, a convention that is described by its organizers as: “A 2-day convention that gives female geeks and their supporters the opportunity to build a community, share facts and fandom, and learn how they can help promote the role of women and other underrepresented groups in geek culture.” While the convention focuses on geek culture (comic books! Science fiction! Anime!), the convention attracts women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) as well.

Here at WWEST, we are dedicated to exploring solutions for engaging more girls in STEM, especially in primary and secondary school. At Geek Girl Con, a two-person panel and presentation focused on just that.

Susie Lee, artist and CEO of, led the panel with 15-year-old student Lily Williamson

The presentation was led by Lily Williamson, a 15-year-old student, and Susie Lee, a tech entrepreneur and CEO of They called their panel, “Getting Girls into STEM: Now Versus Then,” and began by providing insight into what STEM was like for women in 1987 (when Susie was in high school) versus now. The statistics were interesting and not very different from today: women were majoring in STEM fields in university at about 40%, but their presence in the STEM workforce was low. In computer science, women majoring in the field began to decline from a peak of 38% to around 18%, which is where the number remains. Susie and Lily turned it over to the audience and asked, “Why does this happen?”

The audience had interesting perspectives, bringing up examples of non-positive media depictions of women in STEM, teachers who aren’t encouraging; and teachers suggesting that a girl pursue math, but become a math teacher. Susie and Lily agreed, and added that socialization of gender norms begins in the womb and continues as soon as a baby is born – baby products are marketed in stores as blue for boys and feature tools, and pink for girls and feature items traditionally associated with motherhood and nurturing (Susie gave an anecdote that when she recently was shopping for baby products, she noticed the girls’ toy section of a store displayed first a toy oven, and then a stroller).

Source: Computer Weekly

The presentation then turned to availability of tools. In 1987, there were few desktop computers in schools and homes, whereas in 2017, computer processors outnumber humans. In 1987, more information was stored on VHS, cassette tapes, and other analog tools. Now, everything is stored digitally – 88% of teenage girls have a cell phone and 72% have a smart phone. But in 1987, information was spread through newspapers, evening TV news, and the radio. There was no internet, there were no cell phones, GPS, laptops, on-demand streaming, social media, or apps. In 2017, there are many free apps and tools available to help girls learn science, math, and programming. 

Susie pointed out that in the 1970s in the US, organizations and programs were introduced to encourage women to enter STEM fields, and for girls to be excited about STEM in school. The United States saw organizations such as Boston’s WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) and the Association for Women in Mathematics convene consciousness-raising sessions at professional conventions. Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, created her EarthKAM project in 1987, which allowed middle school students to take pictures of the Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. Back then, 39% of girls took high school physics, and 37% of computer scientists were women. These pioneers for participation of women in STEM have created space for girls and women in 2017 to have more STEM role models who look like them. Gender stereotypes and imbalances are still rampant, but there are more programs and initiatives than ever to combat this. The statistics of girls taking STEM electives in school are up, but the rise in the statistics is slower.


After presenting all this information, Susie and Lily opened the floor for questions and discussion. When asked what we can do to create a more positive space for women and girls in STEM, Susie suggested that parents should be conscious of gendering that starts early. Parents should be aware that it starts at home, and girls should be encouraged that they can do anything they work for. She also suggested that parents refrain from talking too much about physical attributes – her parents never forced her to be feminine and were instead focused on her academic success and more excited about the black belt she achieved in karate.

Lily and Susie both agreed that STEM fields are highly collaborative, and bringing together women and girls in STEM fields at conventions and panels is showing a positive trend. They pointed out that it’s hard to be the only one in the room doing a particular thing, and it is very important to find or create community among women and girls in STEM and hang onto it.

Having places for women in STEM to meet and know they are not alone is important. Share with us your favourite meetups, networking groups, and events that keep you connected to women in your field on our Twitter or Facebook. Also check out our resources page for more spaces that connect women in STEM.