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"Too few female role models"

Educator and gender researcher Heidrun Stoeger on women and STEM careers

To mark International Women's Day, we talked to educator and gender researcher Heidrun Stoeger about why men still far outnumber women in STEM careers.

Professor Stoeger, women still make up a tiny share of STEM students and professionals. Your research interests include gender studies. Is it true that girls and women aren't interested in building things, conducting experiments or doing math? Or is that just a stereotype?
Various studies indicate that boys are more interested in STEM subjects than girls. However, other studies have also identified differences in interests. For example, girls and boys are equally fond of conducting experiments and using microscopes, but exhibit much greater differences in areas such as repairing electrical devices, which is much more popular among boys. It's much the same story when choosing majors in college. When girls pick a STEM major, they tend to favor biology or chemistry over computer science or engineering.

Why is it proving so hard to break out of old gender roles?
There are various factors at play. Socialization at home and at school clearly play a role, but so does the media. Despite all the gender diversity programs, the media still shows more boys and men in STEM contexts. Mind you, this includes school textbooks, too. There's also a notable absence of role models. Since women are underrepresented in STEM careers, girls rarely encounter successful female role models in STEM. When they do, these women are so far removed from the girls' personal lives that they don't really serve as role models. Studies have shown that role models that are perceived as being very different can even act as deterrents.

What has to happen for the situation to change?
First, you have to analyze the reasons carefully and then target as many of them as possible. The programs need to be long-term. Short-term measures - such as open houses or multi-day projects - can increase short-term interest and motivation, but often fizzle out when the girls return to their familiar surroundings if they are not combined with longer-term measures.

You launched CyberMentor, an online mentoring project where personal mentors coach girls between the ages of 12 and 18 over a longer period of time and talk to them about STEM majors and careers. What has your experience been with the program?
Every year, the program attracts as many as 800 mentor-mentee pairs throughout Germany. Interestingly, it's much easier to recruit successful STEM mentors than students for this free program. It shows how urgently STEM women believe these programs are needed, but also how hesitant schoolgirls are to pursue STEM options. I've been particularly impressed by the mentors' commitment; despite their busy STEM careers, they devote a lot of time to mentoring and contribute extraordinarily creative ideas for projects and STEM campaigns. Some students in the program just want to dip their toe in the STEM world; others want to dive in head-first. This latter group often participates in the program for several years.

And then embark on a STEM career themselves?
As a matter of fact, more than 70 percent of participants later major in a STEM field. I'm also particularly pleased that, after ten years of CyberMentor, we now have some mentors who used to be CyberMentor mentees.


Professor Heidrun Stöger is a member of the 2017 jury for the Media Award for Education Journalism, which is awarded by Deutsche Telekom Stiftung.