We all want girls (and all young people) to have equal opportunity and to be whatever they want to be. But the reality is grim. Women are discriminated against in the workforce. They are paid less than men, promoted less, and listened to less. It’s not “perception” – it’s the hard truth. (See the research here.) And it’s worse in many STEM careers, especially in engineering and programming. In college, women are discriminated against in courses, grading, and in getting mentorships that are so important for advanced degrees.
Trace back down this pipeline to K-12 and the facts don’t get any happier. Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math even when they get (generally) better grades and test scores than boys, and not selected as often for STEM slots in academies and special programs.
But girls have an advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science get good grades in other subjects too, whereas boys tend to get good grades in one area. Girls who score well on tests in math and science tend to also score well in language, history, and other subjects.
So when we complain there is a “leaky pipeline” in K-12 education for girls in STEM courses, it’s not just discrimination. Girls are choosing to not major in STEM subjects for the very reasonable reason that they have more options.
Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking. And really, let’s call it like it is, it’s lying.
Lying to kids is bad. Lying makes kids distrust adults and strangles the most important educational tool of all, a relationship of trust between educators and young people. Even when the lie hides harsh reality, even when we wish it weren’t true, it’s better to speak the truth — and then work to fix it.
Now – am I saying that we should tell girls to just give up? No. I’m saying we have to tell girls AND BOYS the truth. That there is unfairness and discrimination in the world. We should tell them because they deserve the truth. We should tell them because they should (and will) be appalled. We should tell them because it gives them a chance to think about how it should be different. And then we should teach them how to make the world a fairer place, starting today.
Because guess who can fix it – they can. Girls AND boys are the only hope that this changes, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.
It’s not like they don’t know it already. In a Girls Scouts study, (Generation STEM), “… 57% of all girls say that if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from Generation STEM, “Half (50%) of African American girls (compared to 38% of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: “Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/ worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.”’)
These problems can’t be solved by sweeping them under the rug; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work TOGETHER to solve them.
What educators can do:
- Arm yourself with the facts. I pulled together some resources for my ISTE session, Girls & STEM: Making It Happen
- Talk with young people about stereotype threat, what it means, and how to overcome it.
- Don’t just talk to girls about these issues – boys need to understand them too. The solutions must come from everywhere.
- Boys and men are not “to blame” for how society treats women. It’s a long-standing issue, but one that can be changed by everyone working together.
- Tell inspiring stories of women and girls – but also of men and boys who overcome obstacles and odds stacked against them.
- This is not a “woman issue”. Use resources like: Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts from the National Council on Women in Technology (NCWIT) and adapt for your own setting.
- Address issues of discrimination in your own settings quickly and fairly. What you do (as the adult in the room) matters. But not just in the classroom, also in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge, conference stage, and offices.
- Be mindful of your own behavior and try as much as possible to open the learning invitations to all students.
- Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think, how do they feel about it, what do they want to change?