Teen scientists discuss the gender gap in STEM

Teens gather at the New York Academy of Sciences Global STEM Alliance Summit. From left, Rajaa Elhassan, Robyn An, Evan Huff, Ellie Zillfleisch, Tavus Atajanova, and Aaryan Batra. (New York Academy of Sciences, Elena Olivo).
Teens gather at the New York Academy of Sciences Global STEM Alliance Summit. From left, Rajaa Elhassan, Robyn An, Evan Huff, Ellie Zillfleisch, Tavus Atajanova, and Aaryan Batra. (New York Academy of Sciences, Elena Olivo).

On a Wednesday in July, dozens of high school students from across the globe flocked to the New York Academy of Sciences for its yearly Global STEM Alliance summit, a three-day event dedicated to “building a global community of science and technology leaders.

On top of meeting some of the brightest minds in the science world today, they got the chance to meet each other. But before the festivities began, Yahoo Lifestyle sat down with six of the students, ranging in age from 14 to 18, to discuss not only what they want to be, but also what obstacles they’re facing to get there.

The group consisted of three American students and one each from Japan, Korea, and Australia. The latter three countries’ scores far surpass that of the United States on one of the main standardized literacy tests for science — the PISA exam (which also measures reading and math).

In the most recent PISA test, which is given to 15-year-olds every three years, the U.S. placed 25th for science, scoring 496 — just three points above the average of 493. Japan, by comparison, scored a 538 in science, landing it in second place overall (behind Singapore). Australia and Korea also made the top 15 (out of nearly 70 countries total), both scoring well above the average — and well above America.

The meeting seemed a ripe environment, given these statistics, to discuss why the U.S. lags behind other countries in PISA scores but seems to surpass them in scientific prizes. After all, a myriad of think pieces have been written by researchers, academics, and reporters, asking — and trying to answer — this very question. But it’s rare to get the chance to speak with the demographic who is actually taking the test.

The PISA scores, it became clear early on, don’t seem to be a major concern. Not because there isn’t a discrepancy, but because the discrepancy appears — to these students — to be a direct result of the course load. Students in Japan and Korea, they said, devote more time to schoolwork. Aaryan Batra, for example, a 16-year-old from Japan and one of the six kids in the room, said it’s not unusual to be working on schoolwork from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. — even during the summer.

What they cared more about was their next steps; four of the students hope it will be in the medical field, and two others are looking to engineering or another scientific field. What did set the group dynamic aflame, however, was the topic of the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). As statistics about the lack of women in these fields were read aloud, all three of the girls in the room gave some version of an eye roll, as if to say, ugh.

It’s no surprise — the facts are grim. A study from Georgetown University found that out of 100 female bachelor’s degree students, just 12 will graduate with a STEM degree, and only three will continue to work in a STEM field 10 years after graduation. While women today hold close to half of U.S. jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, they hold just 24 percent of those in STEM. Those who do, according to Ohio State University, stand to make one third less than their male counterparts.

So what is the answer? Why are girls still being left out of STEM?

The first to jump in with thoughts was Rajaa Elhassan, a 17-year-old at the Bronx High School of Science in New York. Elhassan said she thinks the gender gap in STEM begins as early as grade school. “I think in some STEM fields people have an underlying assumption that women are less brilliant than men,” she says. “You can have the accolades, but people are looking at you and thinking you’re less brilliant than men. You’re made to feel less than.”

Elhassan saw this manifest on a robotics team at school. “The girls on the co-ed team were being given small roles, management stuff. At one competition a guy even said, ‘How do you manage to get girls in STEM without worrying about breaking their nails?’ Elhassan recalled, adding that after the experience, she watched her female peers begin to drop out of STEM activities. “You hear other girls saying, ‘I’m not interested,’ but it’s not that they’re not interested, it’s that they don’t feel welcome.”

Her thoughts spurred a reaction from Robyn An, a 15-year-old from Korea. An said that in Korea, girls are discouraged from pursuing a career of any kind — much less a scientific one. “Everything is male-dominated, so it’s kind of difficult to live there as a girl who wants to do science. Everyone is a really big believer in Confucius, so people believe that women can’t be leaders,” said An. “They believe that men should dominate that field.”

An said that the trend is changing in Korea, but not quickly enough. “Everything revolves around the theory that if you’re a girl, you really can’t participate. You always need to see through a different lens,” she says. “The gender gap is huge. Although Korea seems modernized, it’s the opposite because socially and economically, women are behind.”

Batra, the 16-year-old from Japan, agreed with both Elhassan and An. “There is more pressure on women because they want to have jobs and a career. In Japan, it’s not culturally appropriate to be a stay-at-home dad, and that’s a problem,” Batra said. “One good thing is that Japan is trying to change that — they’re even creating emotional robots!”

All of the students agreed that for equality to be reached in STEM, women should have the same opportunities as men and feel supported by those surrounding them. At this conference, it’s safe to say they felt both — and are ready to tackle the next challenge that comes their way. Maybe all we have to do now is sit back and watch.

New York Academy of Sciences’ Global STEM Alliance programs have been made possible through its partnership with the Oath Foundation — whose mission is to build opportunities for underserved women and girls to become future leaders. The Oath Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Yahoo’s parent company, Oath.

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