A big theme at this year’s STEM Ed conference was Girls and Women in STEM, because that pipeline is leaking way more females than males. Dr. Elizabeth Croft of UBC, the final keynote speaker of the conference did a fabulous presentation on the next generation of women in STEM. I enjoyed this presentation because even though she has the studies to back up her claims, she spoke in a very accessible way. She has the data to support her, but didn’t bog us down with it.
She began by presenting 3 myths that exist about women in STEM and her answers to them.
Myth 1: Boys have better math skills than girls.
They don’t; as a population girls and boys are both good at math. But beyond that, math ability in boys doesn’t predict their participation in STEM, particularly engineering. Yes, there are gender differences, but that doesn’t preclude anyone from being successful in STEM. AND, the skills that many companies are looking for in their engineers are precisely those that are traditionally considered feminine – good communication skills, good team work and rapport, organizational and problem solving skills….
Myth 2: Girls just aren’t interested.
Dr. Croft believes that it’s not about innate interest, but how STEM has been marketed. Try this: Google “engineers” and take a look at the images. Out of the first 10-20 images you see, how many women are there? And this is an improvement! Dr. Croft presented a variety of images from past UBC Engineering marketing materials, and it was all boys/men, either in lab coats or hard hats. What affect does this have on young girls who may have been interested in Engineering?
Myth 3: STEM doesn’t need diversity.
Looking at it from a business perspective – having more girls in STEM means that there is a larger talent pool to draw from, which leads to increased innovation, improved governance, and stronger financial. Essentially: diverse team = smarter team
She suggests that the key to getting girls and women in STEM subjects is to make people aware of the context behind STEM – what the real world problems are that are being worked on. This information isn’t just useful for girls, but for everyone, as parents and teachers have huge influence on kids. It is also incredibly important for girls to have female role models to look up to, and learn from. Lastly, just like in real life, the pipeline leaks at transition points – so mentorship programs and community support and network could be useful tools to keep women.
Thomas Meagher, of Owatonna Public Schools in the US looked at students in his district in Grades 4-7 and found that they had positive attitudes towards STEM, but were less positive about having a career in a STEM field. This research supports Dr. Croft’s points about students not having context and any real idea of what the career opportunities are. This again comes down to marketing, and I believe, students’ overall lack of exposure to all careers in any detail, even though we ask them to start choosing career and academic paths in high school.
For more discussions on women in STEM see this blog post from Aliens Among Us or this one by Anne Jolly.
Now…as a class (with some help from a question posed in a session by Astrid Steele), we have had a lot of discussion about WHY we want women in STEM in the first place. I think this is a really important discussion. Yes, a diverse team will be more successful than a homogenous team, but that’s not really the question being asked. It comes back to David Blade’s presentation – why do we want ANYONE in STEM at all? Why is STEM so important to us right now?
It’s not a simple answer, but I believe it comes from a long line of civilizations and societies that were successful – aka able to survive – based on their technological innovations. Access to clean water, the ability to build buildings and transportation networks, and communication technologies helped people to survive. And now “technological advancement” has become synonymous with success. People are only now starting to see the value in the indigenous, ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things (such as Peter Cole and Pat O’Riley of UBC). However, the mainstream view is still one of progress from technology. We expect the future generation to save the world through technology we haven’t worked out yet. No pressure, right?
And what about boys? Yes, it is incredibly important for us to teach girls that they can be whatever they want, but we’re not actually very good at being supportive of our boys to be whomever they want, either.
Croft, E. (2014, July). The next generation of women in STEM: Making transformative change. Keynote presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.
Meagher, T. (2014, July). A look at student attitudes and measured performance after a new STEM initiative’s first year. Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference of STEM in Education, Vancouver, BC.