Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have grown substantially in the last few decades, but the number of women working in those jobs has not. In fact, in 2017, the U.S. Economics and Statistics Administration found the number of women in computer science and math actually declined.
The gender disparity in STEM occupations is consistent with findings that less than 30% of college graduates with STEM degrees are women. So just when does the divide between women and men — or girls and boys — with an interest in STEM careers begin?
Between the fourth and eighth grades, according to Sonya Ulibarri, President & CEO of Girls Inc. of Metro Denver. “Girls in those years tend to become less participatory and active in science and math classes, so their confidence in their abilities in STEM areas starts to wane,” she says. In addition, she says that most girls — and especially low-income girls of color — have minimal interaction with or exposure to women working in fields like robotics, renewable energy, or food sciences.
Led by Ulibarri for seven years, Girls Inc. of Metro Denver is working to close the STEM gender gap, one girl at a time. In 2016, with support from Comcast NBCUniversal, the nonprofit became one of the newest affiliates of the national Girls Inc. organization to launch a program geared specifically to underserved middle and high school girls at that pivotal point in their educational development.
Named Eureka!, the five-year program begins with a STEM-focused four-week summer course for 30 girls preparing to enter eighth grade. Eureka! leads enrichment activities throughout the following school year, and the girls engage in a more immersive four-week summer course the next summer. In their third and fourth summers, the girls put their knowledge and skills into practice through STEM-related paid summer internships at around 20 Denver-area businesses. In their fifth year, the girls are invited to participate in a trip abroad that focuses on developing STEM knowledge in a global setting.
The program’s objective is to enable girls to explore the breadth of STEM career opportunities, motivate them to pursue college studies in STEM fields, and position girls for STEM careers. The target population for Denver’s Eureka! program is low-income girls of color, who make up 90% of the girls served by the program.
In 2018, the program entered its third year — and for the first time, the girls are expected to intern at area businesses. Ulibarri said her goal is to enroll a total of 150 girls at grade levels 7 to 12. “When we intentionally invest in girls, we get the outcomes we seek,” she says. “But it does not happen quickly, and that’s why we have developed a sustainable program that will really put our girls on the path for success in the long term.”