Girls and STEM - A post for all parents
I grew up believing that I could do anything. I grew up believing that what mattered was the amount of effort that I put into my work and my life. I certainly did not grow up thinking that my gender determined my level of intelligence.
It was therefore a shock to me when I read that a 2016 study, published in the journal Science found that by the age of 6, girls are more likely to guess that a “really really smart” adult who was described to them was male not female.
Boys were also more likely to think that the person described was male https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/well/family/why-young-girls-dont-think-they-are-smart-enough.html
This research was confronting for me on two levels. There is the obvious concern that girls do not think that they are likely to grow into really really smart women. Then there is the fact that boys also believe this.
It is important that both boys and girls are taught that women are just as capable as men, both in study and in the workforce, if women are to achieve equality in pay and status. While we and our daughters continue to come up against unconscious bias from both genders we have no real hope of attaining this outcome.
The question is, what we can do about gender bias in our kids?
There is an argument that, because much of the bias faced by girls is unconscious, it is almost impossible to fight. Girls are subjected to unfavourable (often unconscious) bias about their abilities in school, sport, by family and in many of their other extra-curricular activities.
I think that there is good reason to fight the battle wherever we see bias at work against our daughters and while it is both difficult and tiring, I think it is possible.
I also think that we can make a huge difference by recognising our own biases and working to combat them.
I will give you a personal example.
Not long ago, I read an article by an author who lamented that when she visited schools to talk about her books and her writing, it was often only girls who were brought to attend her talks.
The author said that while her main character was a girl, she believed that the stories were interesting in their own right, and that by excluding boys from her talks, teachers were reinforcing the idea that some books were just for girls.
I nodded as I read, thinking how terrible this was until I took the time to reflect.
Was I likely to borrow the Princess in Black books from the library to read to my Ethan?
Lily used to love these books. The main character uses martial arts to defeat monsters and the story lines are simple but not condescending. There are a lot of reasons that Ethan might enjoy them but I know that without making a positive and conscious effort, I'm unlikely to pick these stories up to read to to him.
Now that I am aware of this tendency, I am actively seeking out books where the main characters are strong girls and reading them to him. He honestly doesn't care whether main characters are male or female and Rosie Revere Engineer is one of his favourite books!
It is critical that Ethan is exposed on every level - in literature, on television, at day care, at home and in as many other situations as possible - to the fact that girls are just as capable of being leaders and successful people as boys. Where that message is missing and where there is an imbalance in the number of females to males who are portrayed as being capable of achieving greatness, that is the crack where gender bias will silently creep in.
Your response to all of this might be “okay, great topic, but what has it got to do with science?”
The answer is that girls have lower participation rates in science in high school and tertiary studies than boys do. Science is perceived as a field for “really smart people” and therefore girls tend to self-exclude from these subjects.
Those who do participate in science disciplines are surrounded by groups of males, including their teachers, who are likely to hold the belief that the really smart and talented people in the room are men.
There is some great work being done to combat these biases in the sciences. There are groups such as Women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) and the Superstars of STEM which is a program that recruits 30 women who are leaders in their chosen field of science to be ambassadors with Science and Technology Australia each year to help promote the role of women in STEM.
Unfortunately there is still a lot of work to be done to fix perceptions about women in science. But I am setting out to really recognise my own unconscious acts of bias and to address those as my #1 priority.
One of the best ways to support all children to feel capable and confident is to get them involved in learning that feels fun and exciting. That is exactly how we have designed our Chemistry-in-Action kit which is suitable for kids aged 4 to 10-years-old.
If you are interested in getting hold of some STEM related picture books with talented female characters, here are a few that I would certainly recommend:
**The links to Amazon in this post are associate links. Purchases of qualifying products earn me a percentage of the sale but do not increase the price for you**