STEM mentoring can affect real change by creating communities for learning and building social capital. But progress cannot be made if we do not reach out to those girls left behind by the digital divide.
The isolation experienced by teenage girls from underserved areas is being compounded by COVID-19, with physical distancing, alternative approaches to teaching and the cancelling of activities taking its toll on school performance, motivation and energy levels.
Connecting with peers and mentors in a meaningful way can not only provide a sense of community that may be currently absent in classrooms, it can also improve social and emotional development, self-esteem and attitudes toward school for girls.
Online STEM mentoring projects are an ideal setting to achieve this and make learning social. Yet creating these opportunities in a way that is accessible to everyone is not straightforward.
What is the digital divide?
The digital divide is a term used to identify the inequalities between those who can access the internet and those who cannot. Within its depths are educational, economic and health disparities from which recovery can, at times like these, seem insurmountable.
Girls are being left behind because they do not own devices, they do not have reliable internet, or they did not develop the digital literacy skills necessary to engage remote learning.
BDRC research finds that Ireland is one of the most expensive countries in the world for broadband. For some families, having internet in the home isn’t a priority—there are other household bills to consider as unemployment rates spike. While for those living in parts of rural Ireland, the only options are mobile packages that are reliant upon signal strength in areas of poor coverage.
Can women in STEM bridge the gap?
Many depend on schools and libraries for free computers and internet time. With restrictions and closures eliminating these accessways, the divide is widening and students who would otherwise be advancing are struggling. Girls are being left behind because they do not own devices, they do not have reliable internet, or they did not develop the digital literacy skills necessary to engage remote learning.
The STEM talent pool cannot see an increase in its numbers of women if it does not increase the number of girls completing STEM courses. This requires women in STEM to intervene now by mobilising their resources to level the field of opportunity.
What can be done?
This crisis has made plain the issue of digital inequality. Supporting girls today to become the problem solvers of tomorrow requires a moment of reckoning. If we really want to promote women in STEM, we must act to foster girls in STEM. This includes taking the necessary steps to deliver equipment, connectivity and training to make the empowerment, progress and change we talk so much about possible.