msnickelodeon made a post today about the underrepresentation of girls in STEM, and I was reminded that someone had mentioned they’d like me to write a little about this. This is lengthy, so click through to read the whole thing.
I’ll start with my own experience. I always, always wanted to be a scientist, and no one ever told me I couldn’t. My family was very supportive; I was the kid getting plastic microscopes and chemistry sets and constellation books and telescopes as gifts. I represented my high school in various local math and science competitions and medaled every year. I got the highest score in the school on my honors pre-calculus final and on my honors calculus final. I finished honors genetics and honors microbiology at the top of the class and earned 5 science credits in high school. If anyone ever doubted my abilities in science or math, I never heard about it.
But! I also very consciously distanced myself from a feminine image as a high school student. I knew that I (unjustly) judged my female classmates who were cultivating the hyper-sexual feminine image sold to us by the mass media. From my teenage perspective, I had two options: I could be the smart, academic type or I could be feminine. I wholly bought into this false dichotomy and threw myself into my academic pursuits. Since I didn’t take the girls my age who presented themselves as really feminine seriously, I worried that no one would take me seriously if I did the same. So I didn’t. My tomboy phase lasted pretty much into college as I focused on making sure everyone knew that I was a Serious Student. It really wasn’t until midway through college that I felt secure enough in my “scientist” identity to begin finally thinking about ways to express my feminine identity. I realized that being smart did not preclude me from also being feminine, and I realized this because I finally found myself in the company of other young women who openly embraced their intellectual strength and their femininity.
We hear a lot about role models, and I agree that providing role models for our students is essential. I have complicated feelings about my own ability to be a role model for the young women in my classroom. I call myself a biologist, but I don’t work as a researcher—I am a teacher, one of the most stereotypically female jobs out there. Does my presence in the classroom send the message that the best place for a talented young female scientist is in the high school classroom, not the lab? I don’t have an answer for that.
I do think if I’d had more female STEM role models I would have felt a lot more comfortable with myself in high school. I didn’t, though. The biology teacher I idolized was male. I loved my female math teachers, but they were teachers, so their femininity was expected. None of the women in my family were engaged in STEM (except for one second cousin I met once). What I desperately needed at that age was to talk with a young woman who was actively working full time as a STEM professional so that I could reconcile “woman” and “scientist” in my mind.
[This is the first time I have realized/admitted that one of my issues in high school was negotiating that, FYI.]
I tell my students: “We are all scientists.” My female students regularly outperform my male students, and last year there were significantly more girls than boys enrolled in gifted biology. I know many of my female students are interested in pursuing STEM after high school. I’m not sure if they feel marginalized or stereotyped, and I’m not sure if those students feel any internal conflict re: being a girl who likes science. I do know that they are surprised when I share the STEM gender gap with them. The male students in my gifted biology class seem pretty invested in not appearing to try too hard; they don’t seem to feel the need to actively project their interest and talent in science the way my female students do (I have no hard data on that; it’s just an anecdotal observation from my classroom).
Many people more talented and knowledgeable than me have written a lot about the causes of the STEM gender gap, and none of it is stuff you haven’t heard before. We’re failing our young women in high school and again in college and again in the workplace. I think about the faculty in my own science department and reflect on the fact that I’m not comfortable with any of my wonderful young female scientists taking AP Physics with the creepy, misogynistic old physics teacher. But can I in good conscience really advise a prospective engineer not to take AP Physics because the teacher is going to make her uncomfortable? It’s not something they should have to deal with.
I’m not convinced that we necessarily need to work explicitly to sell STEM to girls. Stuff like this makes me angry. Girls are interested in STEM. If we keep striving to provide authentic, relevant opportunities for our young women to explore STEM in elementary school, middle school, and high school, then they’ll be as interested in it as the boys. What they need are female role models that show them it is possible for them to pursue their interest after high school. But really, STEM needs to work harder at fostering an environment that is welcoming to girls and women.
We need STEM education that emphasizes the importance of creativity in STEM and the fact that STEM really runs our world. We need STEM education that highlights the contributions females and minorities have made in science, technology, engineering, and math. We need the males in STEM to stop making women feel uncomfortable in their classes and in their offices and in their labs. We need academia to provide more flexibility so that women aren’t forced to choose between pursuing tenure and raising kids (to that end, we need society to stop assuming that raising the kids must be the sole purview of the mother). We need to stop assuming that a female identity is incompatible with a serious interest in STEM. We need to acknowledge that women deserve to be on the teams that are responsible for designing our future.
What does this look like in your classroom? I’m not an expert. Call out sexism when you see it, from your students (male and female and non-binary) and your colleagues. Blatant sexism, obviously, but the casual stuff too, like the two guys in my class last year who thought it was hilarious that their science fair project won an award from the local Women in Science & Engineering chapter. Tell your students about the gender gap, because they don’t know it exists. Tell them about Sally Ride and Rosalind Franklin and Emilie du Chatelet and Marie Curie and Mae Jemison. Praise your students for thinking like a scientist. Let them know that they can work in STEM without being confined to a lab; talk about the importance of the visual arts in science and the importance of communications in science and the importance of design in engineering and the importance of creativity in mathematics. If you can, invite female STEM professionals into your classroom. Talk to your students as if it is already true that they are going to take AP Biology and AP Calculus and advanced computer science. Tell them again about the gender gap because they will forget. Tell them about how medical research has a history of not including women in clinical trials and as a result, we know less about women’s health than men’s. Tell them about how the programmers for Apple’s Siri overlooked women. If you’re a female STEM teacher, own your STEM expertise and experience and share specific anecdotes from your lab work or your programming work. And if you experienced gender discrimination, share that too—there’s no point in pretending like it doesn’t exist. The important part is to show them that while it is an obstacle, it’s not insurmountable. Do whatever you can to make it clear that if they have an interest in STEM they can pursue it without jeopardizing or contradicting their gender identity, their personality, or their personal goals/values. Encourage, praise, encourage, challenge, and hold every single student to the same high expectations. Look for gender disparities in your school’s advanced STEM classes and highlight them and work with your colleagues on how to address it. If anyone has other, better, more developed ideas, by all means share them.
I’ve often wondered: if a talented young female science student told me she wanted to teach instead of pursue a STEM career, what would I say? What would I say to my 15 year old self?