Monday, June 23, 2014

The ONLY Way To Get Girls into STEM (Boys Too!)

Three times in one weekend, I was asked if I was involved in female-oriented and girl-specific tech programs. And it bugged the hell out of me. I love any initiative that has the potential to interest people in science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM) but I loathe initiatives that focus on gender and quotas. Here's why:

We Need to Focus on Kids, Not Girls

I am a woman who works in STEM. And I work in an environment where there are easily as many men as there are women, working on websites and applications. Sure, more of the devs are male but there are just as many female user experience designers, metrics practitioners and information architects as there are male counterparts. Am I lucky? Are we out of the norm?

It hasn’t always been this way for me: I was the only female on a research and development team. I was the only female business analyst working with a largely male development team and mostly male management. But I also worked for a tiny consulting firm run by two men, who hired a handful of kick ass technical women to do the heavy lifting. And I was the only technical person on several comms teams, including a couple of stints as webmistress.

So every single time I come across a conversation about “How do we get more women in tech/ STEM/ insert-specific-tech-industry-here?” I talk about kids.

Not girls. Kids. I talk about how kids are malleable, open to anything, until we put artificial constraints on them.

For example, if you want to come and play with the Dude, you only need to have some common interests. Now, if you’re a boy who only wants to play Barbies, you’re out of luck. If you’re a girl who knows how to wield a lightsaber, the door is wide open. There is a very low barrier to entry to play with the Dude. “Do you like what I like?” – Done!

Kids are easy that way.

So why do we think we need to do anything special to get girls into “boys' stuff”? Or into STEM? Because we suck. Our society markets cultural gender references to the extent that we instill into girls a dislike of “traditionally male” interests from early on. And we put up with the inane pinkification of “traditionally male” anything (I’m looking at you, Lego Friends and GoldieBlox). But we can only do so much surrounded by big money-making corporations who feed on that gender differentiation to sell the same products packaged two different ways.

No, we need to start earlier, and closer to home.

In fact, you know what amazing resource we have to reach the masses?

Schools.

If we want to make STEM attractive to girls, we need to change how we teach it to everyone. We need to make it an integral part of the curriculum.

More STEM Doesn't Mean All STEM

The standard public school curriculum in Ontario is so light on math and science that it kids don't necessarily interpret it as a normal part of their lives; it’s this “special” subject that only some people excel at. My son only had math “some months” this year. And some science in some other months. This should never be the case. STEM should not be taught in isolation of other subject areas, it should be woven into them.

If we incorporated science into other subjects, it would become more “normal” – that is, part of our everyday lives. What if we studied some sci-fi in English class alongside Romeo and Juliette? And if we talked about the cultural impact of technological innovation during social sciences? This isn’t hard. But it’s necessary.

The only barrier to entry that females should have, that people should have, when it comes to STEM is: do you like it? Do you know what it can do? Do you want to do that? They should never, ever, think that they can't or shouldn't go into STEM because they aren't suited to it.

Everyone is capable of learning STEM to some extent and incorporating it into what they do. For example, I might design user experiences, but I also know how to measure them to make sure they are successfully meeting user needs. You might think my work on personas and workflows is fluffy but I know how to mine and analyze data to show the value of design decisions. I might not be able to code the app, but I can improve it and measure that there was an improvement. No one told me I shouldn't, which is why I can.

As long as we continue to treat STEM like it’s not part of absolutely everything around us, we will continue perpetuate the idea that it is a niche subject, only suited to particular personality types or levels of intelligence.

If you want to get people (not just girls) interested STEM, you need to show them how STEM can merge with their interests. And to do that, you need to think like a kid: remove the barriers to entry by not putting them up in the first place. Then we won’t be talking about how to get more girls in STEM. We’ll just focus on getting kids into STEM.

So what can you do?

If your school (like ours), doesn't show signs of changing any time soon, here are some things you can do to help your kids get interested in STEM:

  • Include it in your own daily routine: You can research fauna and flora, do homemade science experiments (ever extract your own DNA? or blow bubbles in freezing temperatures?) but you can also find opportunities to introduce design thinking and user experience. For example: notice a neat building? Talk about the design decisions that led to the door/ window placement and discuss other possible configurations and their potential impact on the user's ability to live in it, or even get into it. So much great fodder for creative little minds! Be creative!
  • Find local extracurricular learning opportunities: take your kids to a maker faire, try out the 3D printer in your local library, check out learning events at local post-secondary institutions or science-related organizations e.g. Doors Open Ottawa usually includes hydro locations or power plants, Carleton U homecoming had a STEM fair for kids, and during National Science and Tech Week we usually head to Science Fun Fest. When we're looking for something to do, I will Google "science+Ottawa+[the date]" to find out what's going on around town. 
  • Talk to the school: Join the parent-teacher council. Go to parent-teacher meetings. Ask about how well STEM is incoporated into the curriculum. Talk to the principal. 
  • Talk to the school board: Find out what kind of opportunities there might be to lobby for more STEM in schools.
Got any more ideas on spreading the love of STEM? Share them here or tweet me!


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7 comments:

Lynn said...

I couldn't agree more. As a woman in high-tech it baffles me when people ask how to get girls interested - I was interested, so I did it, there were no particular barriers due to my sex. It's about getting *people* interested, not anything specific about girls.

Great suggestions and ideas!

qwertyuio said...

What about kid's media including more women as main characters and as people who actually do STEM-type things? Have we ever had a female Jimmy Neutron or Dexter from Dexter's Lab? Would you say this idea is "focusing on gender" too much?

Reelgirl.com is a good website that focuses on gender in kid's movies, and has been documenting trends of exclusion and degregation of girls in kid's media for years. Is that blogger focusing on gender too much?

glongman said...

congrats. front page of HN: http://ihackernews.com/comments/7938798

Ethan Glover said...

I get tired of the usual "push girls into STEM programs whether they like it or not" articles.

It's ridiculous to me that kids have become political pawns. Do people get angry about the amount of women in social sciences? Of course not, because this is more about a strong fear of being "sexist" that only makes things worse.

Levi Rosol said...

You are 100% spot on. Gender diversity in STEM is not something that can be fixed by flipping a switch.

I wrote an article on this topic a few weeks ago and I think we're on the same page. Now if only more people could do the same.

http://wewritecode.com/2014/04/28/i-am-a-man-and-i-write-code/

Chris Proctor said...

I agree, in the same sense that instead of making accommodations for "special needs" students, teachers can acknowledge the incredible diversity of learning styles in all their classes and plan lessons that are inherently accessible and differentiated. That said, I have taught in public schools and in an all-girls school, and seen how all-girls environment affords girls the space they need to become interested in computer science through iterative experimentation. Our alumni who return to public school talk about the gender dynamics that sometimes shut down this space. There is a place for talking about girls specifically when we're teaching STEM.

Sarah Worsham said...

I'm completely with you about incorporating STEM into other subjects -- we shouldn't teach separate subjects -- we should teach concepts and ideas and incorporate whatever makes sense. I always found math completely boring and difficult when it was taught by itself, but viewed it as a useful problem-solving tool in science classes. Great article! ^Sarah