There’s a big problem in STEM, and it impacts half of the population. That problem is a lack of representation for and from women and girls in STEM fields. Women have long been under-represented in STEM-related career fields, and this lack of representation has a wide range of negative consequences. Because science has been a male-dominated field for centuries, this has tended to lead to male-centric interpretations of scientific findings. Women are also seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart-attack, as “classic” heart-attack symptoms are different for men and women.

The fact that women are under-represented in STEM fields is widely known. While 60% of college attendees are women, this is true of only 35% of STEM graduates. Likewise, although women make up half of the labor force in the United States, we only hold 25% of STEM jobs. These disparities do not exist solely for women, either: disadvantaged groups, like Black and Latinx students, are less likely to have access to advanced high school courses in math and science, which is one reason why minorities are likewise under-represented in the STEM workforce. Queer, trans, and non-binary people are also vastly under-represented in STEM fields. The “why” behind this concerning phenomenon is complicated, but two major contributing factors are stereotypes and misconceptions about STEM careers.

The idea that “Scientist = Man” begins very early. When asked to “draw a scientist,” second graders tend to draw a white man. If they draw a woman, she tends to look unhappy. This is true for both boys and girls! Similarly, girls are more likely to lose interest in STEM subjects between the ages of 11 and 15 than boys are. There are also pervasive misconceptions about what scientists and other STEM professionals actually do. According to one study, fifth grade girls often say that they want to pursue a career that will help people, but dismiss engineering as “boring” and irrelevant to their career goals. Only 17% of girls ranked engineering as a very good career (twice as many boys said the same). When the same girls were asked if they’d like to protect rainforests by developing new ways to farm, use DNA to solve crimes, or build cars that run on alternative fuels, they were 2.5-3 times more likely to say that they were interested! Many school-aged students simply have no idea what jobs like “engineer” or “scientist” actually entail.

“Girls often say that they want to pursue a career that will help people, but dismiss engineering as ‘boring.'”

Tyto Online has always been developed with these specific challenges in mind. We want to give students–especially girls–a better understanding of what scientists can be and do, in the hopes of inspiring a new generation to pursue careers in STEM fields. How do we do this? We have several different strategies!

Fighting Stereotypes

Some attempts at “selling” science to girls amount to little more than pinkwashing (think: equipping a pair of lab goggles with a big pink bow to show that “science is for girls.”) Although we do hope that Tyto Online will increase girls’ interest in and understanding of STEM subjects, we are not marketing specifically to girls. Instead, we focus on the game’s characters including a wide variety diverse and non-stereotypical scientist characters of different ethnicities, races, ages, and genders (including trans and non-binary.) We make sure that these characters aren’t limited to stereotypical roles, busting stereotypes about what STEM is like, and who does it.

Men and boys are of course also well-represented in-game, though the idea that targeting girls and women in STEM instruction will turn boys away is also a myth! The positive effects of empowering women are not limited to women alone, especially since many students hold limiting stereotypes about STEM careers.

Maximizing Relevance

The way students interact with problems in the video game focuses on how STEM benefits society. Students solve authentic, high-stakes, contextualized problems in a hands-on way in game, which is a strategy that appeals to girls. In one storyline, students must help a scientist cultivate new species of high-yield crops to address a food shortage. In a COVID-19-inspired storyline, students work with medical professionals and civil servants to diagnose and stop the spread of a sneeze-inducing virus, learning about the nature of science and the ways that scientists help protect communities in the process.

Video games are also impactful in and of themselves! Studies have shown that girls who spent 9+ hours a week playing video games between the ages of 13 and 14 are three times more likely to enter into a physical science, technology, engineering, or math-related degree program.

Creating a Community

The disparate levels of interest between boys and girls in pursuing STEM majors can also be partially explained by a lack of social belongingness for teenage girls. All humans–especially teens–tend to gravitate toward communities in which they can “see themselves.” Because there are so few women in STEM fields, girls and women can feel like outsiders or impostors, leading to an increased lack of interest. Since Tyto Online is a virtual world, it can provide social, cooperative learning experiences to create a pro-social community that girls (along with other students!) can support each other. This can help young women to have more a more positive expectation of the sense of belonging they may feel in a STEM career field.

The dearth of women in STEM fields is a complicated, multi-faceted issue–one that will take many different approaches to address. We’re confident thatTyto Online is one step in the right direction!

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