Think fast, draw-a-scientist!
What image just popped into your head?
Here’s my guess – an old, white male working alone. Am I close?
The research says that I am. This experiment asks children and adults to draw – you guessed it – a scientist. When it was first used in 1983, over 5000 students from three different countries all drew males. In 2017, not much has changed. When this test is used, children and adults almost always draw a male, with glasses, working alone. Worse still, studies have found that these stereotypes start as early as elementary school.
This is indicative of the problems women face in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Globally women account for less than 28.4% of those employed in STEM.
Attempts to address this have focused on the pipeline issue – the belief that if we get more women into STEM fields of education we’ll get more women out. However, globally women with a degree in STEM are still far less likely to work in a STEM related field than men.
How can we, as teachers, help address this issue?
- We need to acknowledge & challenge STEM stereotypes.
A group of researchers in the U.S. studied nearly 1.4 million users of an open source computer programming site Github. They found that 78.6% of programs created by women were approved compared to 74.6% of programs created my males. However, this higher rate of approval only existed when gender was not identified. When the programmers identified themselves as female their approval rating dropped to 62.5%. Thus, women were recognized as better programmers only if their gender remained a secret.
Women also encounter stereotypes in STEM related degrees and professions. Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao argues that there are a number of sexist micro aggressions that continually take place in the workplace. Pao refers to this as “death by a thousand cuts.”
Women who do pursue careers in STEM are expected to take on different roles in the workplace – they are supposed to be the office mother or daughter and are expected to do a greater share of the clerical work than men. This may be why in 2011 in Canada only 27% of women who graduated with a STEM degree chose to work in a related field.
It is important for us to discuss and dispel these stereotypes in our classrooms. If we simply pretend they don’t exist we contribute to a culture that values women who are seen and not heard. We need to have these difficult conversations in our classroom. We need to give a voice to the sexism and micro aggressions that women experience.
- We need to showcase and celebrate female role models in STEM.
The University of Massachusetts conducted a study where first year female engineering students were either not given a mentor, assigned a male mentor or assigned a female mentor. The students met with their mentor once a month. At the end of their first year, 11% of those without a mentor had switched majors or dropped out, whereas 18% of those with male mentors dropped out. Yet, 0% of those with female mentors dropped out. This example highlights the powerful impact that seeing themselves in STEM has on female students.
Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook, states that there is a lack of female role models in STEM, and that this makes these fields less attractive to women. Interestingly, in India 30% of women are programmers versus 21% in America. Journalist Vikram Chandra argues that this is because Indian women have more female role models in STEM fields than American women.
Books, tv shows, movies, the media and our classrooms need to showcase women in STEM. If you are looking a couple fun places to get started check out this great kids book: Ada Twist, Scientist or watch my incredibly talented recently graduated student play Yael – a strong, smart, determined female computer programmer on Degrassi The Next Class. Up to you what you use, but let’s all start talking about and normalizing the idea of women in STEM.
- We need to rethink how Science is taught in schools.
Science is taught as a subject that has a right or wrong answer. Most classroom science experiments are “cookbook based” follow the instructions properly and you will get the desired result. This type of teaching creates a false image of a scientist as a person whose job is to find the right answer. Scientists are not robots that simply record what they see completely objectively. Similarly, they are not capable of seeing everything (information can easily be missed and/or misunderstood). In fact, it is important for students to learn that when we look back at scientific discoveries, much has been challenged and changed because of the fact that humans observe the same thing differently. For example despite people seeing swinging pendulums for 1000s of years, no one, not even Leonardo da Vinci saw what Galileo ‘saw’. Our observations are connected to our previous experiences, prior knowledge and preconceived notions. Finally, it is important for students to recognize that science is not separate from society but part of a complex web of issues that they have the power to act on. We need a science curriculum that empowers students to become active citizens who view science as a tool for positive social change.
Rather than imagining scientists as brilliant robotic figures, students can connect with stories of people who worked hard, failed, tried again, succeeded only to find out they made a mistake and then try again. These stories bring humanity into science and may help to connect with students, like myself, who learn better when they can see the human connection beyond the textbook formula. Also, research shows that women are more attracted to jobs that they believe create real, lasting social change and involve people. Humanizing science and valuing different approaches to research and different types of knowledge may attract not only more females, but also more compassionate scientists and engineers.
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Github coding study suggests gender bias. (2016, February 12). Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35559439
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Huhman, H. “STEM Fields and the Gender Gap: Where are the Women?,” Forbes, June 20, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/06/20/stem-fields-and-the-gender-ap-where-are-the-women/#4209f47741ba
Mercado, M. (2017, June 14). Female Mentorship Helps Keep Women in STEM Subjects, According To New Study. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from https://www.bustle.com/p/female-mentorship-helps-keep-women-in-stem-subjects-according-to-new-study-64437
Schwartz, Z. (2016, April 15). Why there are still far too few women in STEM. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/why-there-are-still-far-too-few-women-in-stem/
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Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). (2017, March 29). Retrieved June 15, 2017, fromhttp://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematic–stem