The market for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is one of the fastest growing in the United States.

If you're still wondering why, just look around: Millions of people are carrying small computers in their pockets. We can play the most advanced video games in the world on a device thinner than a pencil. Our watches can track and send our heartbeats to loved ones on the other side of the planet, and every 20-something with a plaid shirt secretly dreams of inventing the next Facebook.

Talking is texting, dating is Tinder-ing, and ordering hangover takeout is an experience joyously free of human contact. Not to mention all the progress and innovations in health and medicine that keep many of us alive longer and longer every day.


But there's a problem in the world of STEM that needs to be fixed.

Despite the fact that women make up more than half of the professional and technical work force in the United States, women are massively underrepresented in STEM careers and have been for decades.

Margaret Hamilton, a software engineer who helped get Apollo XI to the moon. Photo by NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011, women held less than 25% of STEM jobs. Overall, that's an increase since the 1970s, but in computer occupations, women's representation has actually declined since the 1990s.

So why — specifically — is this a problem?

Well, if underrepresentation of an entire gender in America's fastest growing job market doesn't do it for you, consider this: Lack of diversity and representation isn't just bad for progress, it's bad for business.

Especially in STEM industries which are based on innovative ideas and creative thinking — not having women in the room when designing something meant to be used by people across the gender spectrum is entirely unproductive. When all-male teams create products, they often miss potential solutions because they experience the world differently than women do. When women join those teams, products that had been designed by-men-for-men are adapted and become more useful to the entire population.

All images and data from FatWallet: STEM toys for girls.

It turns out, women get turned away from STEM careers pretty early in life.

Society starts to impose gender roles on kids much earlier than you might think.

"By age 3, children can start articulating gender and racial stereotypes," says Catherine Hill, a researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). "They are learning by what they see, and they are forming stereotypes from the world around them — from parents, teachers, daycare staff."

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

That means that while girls are encouraged to play with Barbies, they are sometimes being told that Legos and other construction toys are "boy toys." Similarly, a boy might smash an old radio to see what's inside and be labeled as "curious" or "a tinkerer" while at times girls are discouraged from such messy and destructive behavior.

All of those little differences in rewarded behavior can steer girls away from their curiosity in engineering, technology, and building instead of nurturing it into an eventual career path.

Worse still, women who do enter the STEM workforce are met with even more discouraging trends.

Yep, you guessed it. There's a STEM wage gap. And a sexual harassment problem.

Image from FatWallet: STEM toys for girls.

The best place to start correcting these patterns is with kids.

Specifically, with all the weirdly gender-specific toys kids are given to play with.

Marina Lee, founder and CEO of the Women in Tech Network, believes parents should encourage their kids to break through those socially constructed barriers when it comes to which toys they play with.

"Let children play with whatever toys they want to play with," Lee says. "Boys don’t just need to play with trucks and building blocks, and girls don’t just need to play with dolls. We need to look at our own unconscious bias as parents and caretakers.”

"Keep your Cabbage Patch Kids. I play with trucks." Photo by John Macdougal/AFP/Getty Images.

The AAUW also recommends several steps for encouraging young girls to explore STEM, which include providing girls with opportunities to tinker and take things apart and introducing them to STEM outside of the school setting. It's also important that boys see that girls can be competent, capable, and interested in STEM through the toys they play with at a young age. Men are often the gatekeepers to job opportunities, so making sure they don't buy into the idea that certain toys (careers) are for them and other toys (careers) are for women is crucial.

Ultimately, this is not just about improving cellphones and seat belts. It's about making the world easier for everyone to live in.

When STEM jobs (and jobs in all fields, really) are more inclusive, the world gets better. More diversity and representation means more innovation and more solutions to problems that people of all genders face.

That means better medicine, better hospitals, and better methods of communication.

When you tell a girl that she shouldn't play with Legos or that she can only play with the pink and purple Lego Friends sets, what you're really telling her is that she shouldn't satisfy her desire to build things. You're telling her that she shouldn't build, shouldn't tinker, shouldn't innovate, and that her gender actively prevents her from being good at those things.

It doesn't take an advanced STEM degree to see that's wrong.

Plus ... Legos are AMAZING.

I LOVE LEGOS. YOU LOVE LEGOS. WHO DOESN'T LOVE LEGOS?!

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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