For girls or about women?

Here’s a key question that we need to answer pretty early on:

What’s needed most? Resources about women in STEM which can be used in various parts of the curriculum, such as in science, technology, maths, history, english lessons? Or resources that encourage girls to engage with STEM subjects? Or do we actually need to provide both?

I’d love everyone’s thoughts!

This is a really interesting and important question. I’m not sure there’s a dichotomy and I think that the focus should not just be on girls but on boys as well - not in the sense of getting boys more interested in STEM as they already are but in making them realise that STEM is for girls as well.

I’ve finally finished Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. It’s a book I can’t recommend enough and I will be referring to it a lot, I’m sure. Anyway, the last part of the book discusses society and culture and how that shapes us from a very very early age - as soon as women know the sex of their foetus they start treating it differently, thinking that boys kick more than girls and so on. As soon as they’re born children are dressed and dealt with differently according to whether they are male or female and are bombarded with messages all around them that women and men are different. At the age of about two children are not only able to distinguish men from women and can tell what activities and attributes each sex is supposed to have, but also know which category they fall into themselves. As we are social animals, children want to conform and as they have very little to distinguish themselves at such as a young age other than their gender, this becomes the key identifier. They know which toys are ‘for girls’ and which are ‘for boys’, which clothes are for which sex, what activities are for each sex (washing up the dishes vs cleaning the car, for example) and so on. Kids who step ‘out of line’ of their gender roles are ostracised and are forced to conform through peer pressure. This much is from the book.

Where I’m going to extrapolate is by saying that if we want girls to be more interested in STEM it’s not just about making it more attractive to them but also about making it less of a ‘boy thing’ for boys. Any straying from gender norms is ‘punished’ by peers, both male and female, and it’s not enough for girls to support each other if as soon as they venture into ‘boy’ territory they are made to feel completely unwelcome and as if they are stepping into ‘enemy territory’.

This is a really long-winded way of saying that I think a combination of the two approaches are necessary. One thing the book said was that just a small amount of change (giving kids books with gender-role-reversed characters, for example) can create a change in attitudes really quickly. So the fastest way to get STEM as a subject anyone can do, male or female, may be to just make kids aware from as early an age as possible that women can and do work in STEM and not to make a big deal of it so that they’re aren’t ‘exceptional’ but are just examples of scientists. So rather than talking about ‘Watson & Crick’ we talk about ‘Watson, Crick and Francis’ and explain each of their contributions. I think maybe also focusing on teams of people rather than the lone genius would encourage more people into STEM as very few people can associate with that whereas a lot more people can imagine being part of a team and making a small contribution to a bigger whole - it’s less daunting and more achievable, plus it has the added bonus of being much closer to the reality of how STEM works these days.

I’m not sure if that entirely addresses your question but it gave me a chance to waffle about something that I’ve been increasingly aware of - that it’s not enough just to turn every woman into a feminist to make any progress, we need to convert the men as well.

Awesome, Fishnut!! That’s really very interesting indeed.

What I’m pulling out of your post is that:

  • We need to perhaps focus more on talking about women’s contributions to STEM
  • We need to include not just individual achievements but team working
  • We need to highlight STEM activities that classes can do that are neutral or girl-territory, but definitely not focussed on stereotypically male

Does that sound about right? This is really great, btw, as we need to create some criteria for the kinds of materials that we either create or curate.

Well done for summarising my waffle so concisely! I’d just add that while points one and three are the result of my reading about gender issues, point two is completely my own idea and therefore may have no evidence to support its inclusion. In other words, take all my suggestions as those of an amateur!

My view (as a parent, scientist and computer geek, but not a professional educator) is that the challenge of involving girls in STEM is a subset of the more general issue of involving anyone who might see STEM as somehow out of reach or irrelevant. This is best fixed through a combination of information and inspiration. The latter certainly might involve mentioning successful female scientists and technologists, but to focus on that aspect might risk reinforcing the perception of a divide. Much better IMHO to tell people about what amazing things you can do with a little scientific and/or technical knowledge, and expose them to success stories elsewhere. Two brief examples from my own parochial world, both concerning a local grammar school for girls that happens to be attended by one of my daughters:

Their robotics club, which has only been going a few months, recently won a place at the VEX Robotics World Championship, which takes place in the US next month. They will be posting information online about their robot, the trip and the competition. They also have 8 corporate and academic sponsors, who will hopefully reach yet more people. Naturally a major aim of this is to encourage others into robotics. The fact that they’re all 12/13-year-old girls is great, especially if encourages more girls (and 12-year-olds) to take this sort of thing, but the focus will quite rightly be the robotics and how awesome it is. :smile:

I’m also talking with the staff at the same school about potential computing projects for pupils in the same age group. It seems to me that many such school projects rather lack imagination and ambition, so I’ve been working on some simple programs for the Raspberry Pi that do (i) voice translation and (ii) face recognition – mainly because both of these have really cool applications that almost anyone can appreciate. Building these kinds of technologies is beyond the specialist knowledge of the staff at the school, but with a vaguely competent external expert (e.g., me!) it’s quite possible to make them simple enough for a motivated 12-year-old not only to understand, but also to build and modify themselves. (I know because my own daughter has been doing this project with me.) If they go ahead with this idea then I’d really like the school – or better still the kids – to share information with the world about what they did and how.

If ALD could help with spreading and highlighting these kinds of initiatives, I think it would be doing a great service.

Timo, I think you’re right to raise the point that trying to encourage girls to engage in STEM by pointing out how few women are in STEM would be counter productive. Indeed, Emma Mulqueeny found exactly this with Young Rewired State back in 2012. She went on a campaign to try to increase the numbers of girls involved in YRS, but found that focusing on the fact that there were few girls signing up for YRS acted as a discouragement to them, by essentially making them concerned about being “outed” as a geek and having the spotlight thrown on them as representative of their gender. The girls were, basically, responding to stereotype threat.

I do think that some explicit role models are useful, and indeed there’s evidence from Penelope Lockwood that women/girls do need to see female role models, more than boys/men need male ones.

But I think we also need to find ways to slip female role models into the boarder curriculum, so that it’s not just a case of “Let’s look at a woman in STEM no Ada Lovelace Day”, but that teachers have the resources to draw on different female role models no matter what they’re teaching. So, for example, if you’re talking about astronomy, you can mention Williamena Flemming, Annie Jump Canon, or modern astronomers like Dr Lucie Green.

With regard to club activities, I think it would be great to be able to have a section about ways to get girls involved in STEM-related clubs. If you would like to share the work you’re doing on Raspberry Pi projects and the like, and how to get external experts in to help, then that’d be fab. I know that a friend of mine works on Code Club stuff, so I will try to get him involved in a discussion about after school activities. I’ll start a separate thread for the support of after-school activities.

Another facets of this is gender literacy, and in particular the role of marketing in swaying girls’ and boys’ ideas of what is “for them”. I covered this a bit in the schools talk I did last year and it really shocked the girls when they were presented with evidence that they were being manipulated!