Breaking the Barriers of Gender Disparities in STEM Through Positive Youth Development

Gender equality in education is an ongoing concern worldwide and specifically in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Because of sociocultural stereotypes associate STEM with males, the perception acts as a barrier that prevents females from developing and pursuing an interest in STEM (Master & Meltzoff, 2017). Many young women are missing the opportunity to contribute and benefit from careers in STEM, yet many countries face shortages and cannot fulfill workforce demands (Master & Meltzoff, 2017). It is recognized by policymakers to reduce gender-based educational disparities in STEM (Master & Meltzoff, 2017). Women represent untapped human capital compromised of 50 percent of the American population and more than 50 percent of the college-bound population, and if leveraged, would enhance the STEM workforce (Dasgupta & Stout, 1970). The 4-H organization recognizes the workforce disparities and has a great opportunity to implement programs to breakdown the barriers and broaden participation in STEM activities.

However, the longstanding history of the 4-H program did not focus on anything but agriculture. What started as corn-club boy groups and became formalized as today’s largest youth organization—standing for “head, heart, hands, and health,” members engaged in hands-on learning to “make the best better” (McColl, 2017). According to Dr. Gabriel N. Rosenberg, author of the 2016 book The 4-H Harvest and professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (as cited, McColl, 2017), “a lot of cultural norms around gender and sexuality illustrated by the history of 4-H.” Originally, the 4-H experience was much different for females than males. Female participants were completing projects related to sewing, cooking, baking, and other skills that would be taught in home economics classes; while males were cultivating crops and raising livestock.

Trends of higher enrollment participation based on gender have existed for years in Ohio 4-H. In 1934, 34.4 percent (18,078) of 4-H members were males, while 65.6 percent (34,477) were females and 33.1 percent (31,103) were males and 66.9 percent (67,747) were females in 1964 (Homan, Dick, & Hedrick, 2007). From personal experience, in 2019, the Marion County 4-H program was comprised of 559 (42.3 percent) males and 762 (57.7 percent) female members. Homan et al (2007) argued that there is an overall differentiation in perception in 4-H based on the gender of youth. Enrollment trends indicate approximately 60 percent of 4-H community clubs are comprised of female members and “females rate 4-H more favorable than comparable males of all grades” (Homan, Dick & Hedrick, 2007).

Researchers argue females tend to be more interested in “intrinsic motives such as improving oneself and developing social relationships with others” than in competition (Homan, Dick & Hedrick, 2007). Females tend to pursue more activities “congruent with their self-schema” (Homan, Dick & Hedrick, 2007). Former 4-H member Amrys Williams (as cited by McColl, 2017) argued youth participating in 4-H are more interested in winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. So, if females tend to lack an interest in competitive activities, why is the trend of 4-H enrollment favor female members? Gender and racial discrimination in 4-H is history and despite its founding purpose, McColl (2017) reported 4-H has focused its efforts to educate underserved communities in STEM subjects.

Although females may not be considered the underserved gender amongst 4-H programs, they are less represented when pursuing careers in STEM. Dasgupta and Stout (2014) argued masculine gender role stereotypes portray boys to be “agentic” and explorers while gravitating toward “activities that emphasize problem-solving, status, and financial gain.” On the other hand, feminine gender role stereotypes refer to girls as “communal” gravitating toward interpersonal relationships and focusing on children and family (Dasgupta and Stout, 2014). Gender role stereotypes are thought to be learned in early childhood as they are influenced by experiences and expectations. Master and Meltzoff (2017) referred to new research that concluded girls’ self-concepts, interest, and motivation begin to be influenced as early as elementary school.

Master and Meltzoff (2017) argued girls have fewer early experiences to spark their interest in STEM. Girls spend less time playing computer games, electronics, and science-related games and toys. Because of fewer experiences to explore with STEM activities, fewer opportunities for girls to spark an interest in STEM exist (Master & Meltzoff, 2017). Master and Meltzoff (2017) argued: “girls’ interest in STEM is not set in stone but is malleable and can be changed through interventions.”

Research evidence does not solely rely on performance and ability to fully explain the existing gender gaps in participation; however, it reveals women lack a sense of belonging in the STEM workforce (Master & Meltzoff, 2017). When individuals feel they do not fit in, they become disengaged and unmotivated, and in a learning environment would result in low academic performance. Even if there is an interest in STEM established, there tends to be a direct and indirect message that signals females do not belong in STEM careers (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014).

Peer pressure and acceptance are a true concern in adolescence and influence girls’ choice to pursue STEM subjects (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). Evidence showed girls’ decisions to enroll in advanced math and physics courses were linked to their friends’ previous course participation and how well their female friends did in those classes (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). Although, competition is “less conducive to learning, self-efficacy, and achievement,” collaboration is particularly helpful in influencing a positive learning environment—specifically for girls and affects their persistence in STEM (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014).

In addition to parents playing a critical role in their children’s academic interests, personal goals and values influence the trajectory of career pursuits. STEM courses are considered “more meaningful when they connect experiences with personal goals (Gentry & Owen, as cited in Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). Specific values are associated with specific occupations and, while girls and women tend to value altruism, interpersonal orientation, family time, and knowledge development, STEM fields are misperceived to hinder communal goals (Dasputa &. Stout, 2014).

According to Dasputa and Stout (2014), there are four evidence-based insights into bridging the gap to increase girls’ participation in STEM fields. First, the learning environment must be redesigned to emphasize a welcoming environment for learning to broaden the beliefs about who belongs in STEM and to break the gender stereotype barriers. Second, it must be communicated that STEM is not a fixed ability. Third, STEM careers do involve working with and helping others to make the world a better place. And lastly, an emphasis on role models working in STEM fields are “human” and relatable (Dasputa & Stout, 2014).

Because of the popularity of 4-H participation amongst females, the largest youth organization has an obvious platform and opportunity to introduce and entice girls’ to pursue STEM careers. Utilizing the essential elements (belonging, independence, mastery, and generosity) embedded through the hands-on learning experiences of the 4-H program, educators and adult volunteers can create an informal, safe and welcoming environment to change the attitudes of girls toward STEM. Programmatic efforts that could be implemented, but not limited to: a) fostering collaborations between youth and STEM specific departments within the university; b) creating informal STEM learning environments, after-school activities and summer camps geared toward girls; and c) partnering with organizations with similar goals.

The Cooperative Extension System is comprised of land-grant universities and local county offices that support 4-H programming in rural and urban areas across the nation. One of the many benefits of both Extension and 4-H is they are the connection between clientele and the research-based information at the university level. The Oklahoma 4-H STEM Institute is an example of youth and adults having the opportunity to work with university faculty to informally network to share their technology and application expertise (Sallee & Peek, 2014). The content of the program is determined based on workforce demand and with the guidance of local 4-H professionals, participants attend an in-depth, multiple-day training to learn about a specific subject matter including, but not limited to geospatial, digital media, lego robotics, environmental conservation, and forensics (Sallee & Peek, 2014). At the conclusion of the training, participants then returned to their local communities and implemented specific projects. The purpose of the program is two-fold. Sallee and Peek (2014) reported project implementation empowers youth to participate in community change and also provides an outlet to encourage STEM exploration. The STEM Institute framework could easily be replicated to encourage gender-inclusive programming.

By eliminating the pressure of grades and putting emphasis on creativity and hands-on activities, girls can explore STEM as hobbies and not academically (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). Dasgupta and Stout (2014) suggested the best approach to attract girls’ to STEM activities is to leverage their interests. For example, writing code to create programs related to communal oriented activities, such as art or music.

Wang and Billington (2016) suggested girls lack “opportunities to learn STEM in out-of-school settings” and they have “very limited in knowledge about STEM professions.” Many girls do not associate their job aspirations as STEM-related when in reality they are. Minnesota 4-H designed and implemented a program involving bicycles. The Pedal Power program targeted fifth-grade girls and included not only STEM content related to bicycles, but also focused on “positive body image, explicit gender-equity instruction, and promotion of self-esteem (Wing & Billington, 2016). Participants were taught by female instructors for four hours, once a week over the course of six weeks (Wing & Billington, 2016). Utilizing STEM knowledge in a real-world context, participants used everyday tools to address the roles of engineers and scientists; and teach them “problem-solving, decision making, coping and communication” (Wing & Billington, 2016). Wing and Billington (2016) suggested short-term programs will likely not be enough to change girls’ perceptions and increase their interest in pursuing STEM careers. It is suggested to continue to provide more out-of-school experiences applying gender-equity instruction concepts to teach STEM (Wing & Billington, 2016).

Collaboration provides an opportunity to avoid “re-creating the wheel.” A simple search with the keywords: girls who code and 4-H can lead to examples of current collaborations amongst two organizations to meet one common goal.  Girls Who Code (2019), a non-profit organization aimed to “close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.” A group of West Virginia 4-H’ers from the Kanawha County Plane Janes Girls Who Code 4-H Club used their computer and coding skills to virtually address stereotypes, which also earned them one of 40 spots in the nationwide Facebook hackathon (Curtis, 2019).

In New York, Ann Chiarenzelli, 4-H STEM educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension started a Girls Who Code club within the local youth development program “to empower young girls, not only in computer science, however, also to allow them to explore their passions unrestricted by gender or anything else” (Hall, 2018). As research has determined 4-H members are predominantly females, so what better organization to collaborate with to increase the number of females interest in one segment of STEM? Although, Girls Who Code is just one organization 4-H can collaborate with programmatically to encourage interest within STEM among females.

To break the stereotypical barriers that result in girls believing they do not belong or cannot succeed in STEM, there is a desperate need to change the messages communicated to both youth and adults (Masters & Meltzoff, 2017) Utilizing an organization that once was known to be solely focused on agriculture, the 4-H program is in the perfect position to lessen the gender gap to encourage and develop its female members’ interests in STEM in an environment where they have a sense of belonging surrounded by caring adults to become a catalyst for change within their communities and in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


Curtis, T. (2019). WVU Today: West Virginia Girls Who Code 4-H Club virtually addresses stereotypes, earns spot in Facebook hackathon. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from

Dasgupta, N., & Stout, J. G. (2014). Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: STEMing the Tide and Broadening Participation in STEM Careers: Semantic Scholar. Retrieved from,-Technology,-and-STEMing-Dasgupta-Stout/290e4a59619bc4a83063888e1b794eed8ee4bbb0.

Girls Who Code. (2019.). Retrieved December 4, 2019, from

Hall, S. (2018). 4-H and Girls Who Code partner in NY counties. Retrieved December 4, 2019, from

Homan, G., Dick, J., & Hedrick, J. (2007). Differences in Youth Perceptions of Ohio 4-H Based on Gender. Journal of Extension, 45(5). Retrieved from

Master, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2017). Building bridges between psychological science and education: Cultural stereotypes, STEM, and equity. Retrieved from

McColl, S. (2017). The Complicated Growth of 4-H. Retrieved from

Sallee, J., & Peek, G. G. (2014). Fitting the Framework: The STEM Institute and the 4-H Essential Elements. Journal of Extension, 52(2). Retrieved from


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