Words matter – gender bias in makerspaces

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Download full report from this site.

In a new study from Drexel University, researchers found that makerspace facilitators betray gender bias when talking about their students.

Instructors primarily referred to male students as “geeks”, “builders” and “designers” (never “boys”), but most frequently referred to female students as “girls” or even, “helpers”.

Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces

Never. They NEVER referred to the male students as boys. Why? It’s an easy slip to make, reflecting the norm that “boys” are the expected gender, the way things are supposed to be, and girls have to be pointed out.

The problem is, even when it’s unintentional (and the researchers in this study felt it was) it still has impact. If girls feel they are being singled out, even subtly, it can trigger feelings of not belonging, stereotype threat, and other well-documented consequences.

So next time you start to call out, “OK guys…” take a beat and see if there’s something else to say.

If you are thinking, Wow, get off my back, thought police… think about this. You wouldn’t say “Hey gals…” to a mixed gender group, would you? And you definitely wouldn’t say it to a group of all boys. The boys would think that’s an insult, right? Why is being called a girl the ultimate insult for boys, but girls are just supposed to live with being called guys all day every day.

OK folks…. OK class…. OK y’all… it’s not impossible. And it matters.

More from – Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces

“The sheer number of identity references based entirely upon gender (“girls”) is deeply unsettling. Also note that the use of “boys” in referring to makerspace students did not occur at all in these interviews. This gender imbalance shaped attitudes and activities within the makerspaces:

  • Boys were twice as likely to hold leadership positions in group makerspace activities;
  • Boys were more likely to steer major project topics (robotics challenge, Lego, solar car design);

We also observed a gender disparity in expressed design agency (ability to design or guide project activities) in formal vs. informal learning makerspaces. Boys expressed greater agency in formal spaces whereas girls expressed greater agency in informal spaces.

This evidence suggests a persistent, but possibly unintentional, culture of bias reinforced by makerspace leadership. Research into boys and girls engaging in STEM learning reveals that girls and boys have equal potential to become proficient in STEM subjects (evidenced in our study through nearly equal makerspace participation in grades K-8).

While most leaders believe that makerspaces have the potential to function as a safe space where girls and young women can engage in an open collaborative learning environment while dismantling gender stereotypes, our research also indicates that more must be done to achieve an inclusive culture of gender equity.”

So there is another interesting tidbit. The boys “expressed greater agency” in formal spaces, whereas the girls reversed that role in informal spaces. Why? Perhaps because when it counts, boys are more aggressive in taking control? Or is it that instructors are tipping this balance?

All good research tends to create as many questions as it answers!

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Making Culture is the first in-depth examination of K-12 education makerspaces nationwide and was created as part of the ExCITe Center’s Learning Innovation initiative. This report reveals the significance of cultural aspects of making (student interests, real world relevance, and community collaboration) that enable learning. The research highlights how makerspaces foster a range of positive student learning outcomes, but also reflect some of the gaps in inclusion common in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields. The report was co-authored by Drexel School of Education researchers Dr. Kareem Edouard, Katelyn Alderfer, Professor Brian Smith and ExCITe Center Director Youngmoo Kim.

Girls and STEM – ISTE 2016 presentation

These are the slides from my ISTE 2016 presentation “Girls & STEM: Making it Happen.”

Martinez girls and stem ISTE 2016 (PDF)

Resources

Maker

Invent To Learn

MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology through Making, Creating, and Inventing (Intel infographic)

Power, Access, Status: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Class in the Maker Movement

Leah Buechley – Gender, Making, and the Maker Movement (video from FabLearn 2013)

Associations

National Girls Collaborative Project (links to many others)

National Council of Women and Informational Technology

American Association of University Women

Unesco International Bureau of Education (IBE)  – Multiple resources such as: Strengthening STEM curricula for girls in Africa, Asia and the Pacific10 Facts about Girls and Women in STEM in Asia

WISE (UK) – campaign to promote women in science, technology, and engineering

My posts about gender issues, stereotype threat, and other topics mentioned in this session

HOW TO COURSE CORRECT STEM EDUCATION TO INCLUDE GIRLS

LET’S STOP LYING TO GIRLS ABOUT STEM CAREERS

Stereotype Threat – Why it matters

Inclusive Makerspaces (article for EdSurge)

What a Girl Wants: Self-direction, technology, and gender

Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer

Research

Securing Australia’s Future STEM: Country Comparisons – Australian Council of Learned Academies

Generation STEM:  What girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – Girl Scouts of the USA (2012) (Girls 14-17)

Effective STEM Programs for Adolescent Girls: Three Approaches and Many Lessons Learned

Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. (2009)

Gresham, Gina. “A study of mathematics anxiety in pre-service teachers.” Early Childhood Education Journal 35.2 (2007): 181-188.

Beilock, Sian L., et al. “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.5 (2010): 1860-1863.

Teachers’ Spatial Anxiety Relates to 1st- and 2nd-Graders’ Spatial Learning

Statistics

National Center for Educational Statistics

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

How to Course Correct STEM Education to Include Girls

This article appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of EdTech K-12 magazine and online on their website.

How to Course Correct STEM Education to Include Girls

Introduce the real world and change the conversation.

In a perfect world, all people would have equal opportunity to achieve their professional goals. But the reality is not perfect for women in the workforce.

In many science, technology, engineering and math fields, especially in engineering and programming, women are under­represented: While they represent half of all college-educated workers in the U.S., they made up just 28 percent of science and engineering workers in 2010 — an increase from 21 percent in 1993, according to the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report.

Trace back down the pipeline to STEM in K–12 and the facts don’t get any cheerier: Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math (even when they get better grades and test scores than boys) and are overlooked for slots in STEM academies and special programs. They may stop seeing themselves as being good at science and math as they move into middle school, where students begin to develop the skills they need for STEM majors and careers.

Girls do have one interesting advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than are boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science tend to get good grades in other subjects too, while boys tend to get good grades in only one area. For boys, that focus may translate into a stronger push toward a career in STEM; if you have fewer choices, you concentrate on making them count.

So when we complain that there is a “leaky pipeline” in K–12 education for girls in STEM courses, we should acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily a matter of discrimination or systemic bias. Girls are choosing not to major in STEM subjects for the very sensible reason that they have more options.

But this “choice” is also influenced by the prospect of discrimination down the line.

‘Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you?’

In a study by Girl Scouts of the USA (“Generation STEM”), 57 percent 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 of African American girls (compared to 38 percent 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.’ ”)

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 at best, and lying at worst. The leaky pipeline leads into a leaky bucket that any sane person might choose to avoid.

Of course, we want to fix this — not just give up. That first requires tackling how we talk, then integrating technology and engineering in the appropriate ways at the earliest grade levels possible.

Many schools have found success in helping more girls through STEM courses. We know what works: role models, mentors, encouragement and special opportunities. But schools can do more to make STEM courses more accessible for all students.

Introduce real-world topics, real research, real projects, real tools and tangible technology to STEM subjects. That attracts not only girls but any students who are uninterested in dry textbook science.

Change the Curriculum to Expand Experience

Girls say that science is interesting because it helps people and makes the world a better place. Feed that passion by giving students opportunities to do science that matters, not just study about science.

Finding ways to incorporate conductive paint and e-textiles into an electronics lesson is not pandering to girls but expanding the onboarding experience for STEM to more students across the board.

The facts about gender discrimination are depressing, but that isn’t a reason to hide them from young people. They deserve to know the truth (at the appropriate level). Because guess who can fix it? They can. Girls and boys are our only hope if we’re to change the landscape of opportunity, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.

These problems won’t be fixed by pumping more water into a leaky bucket; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work together to solve them.

While changing deeply embedded culture and established curriculum may seem like an impossible challenge, it’s something that simply has to be done.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Be mindful of your own behavior and try to open learning invitations to all students. In particular, talk with young people about stereotypes and how to overcome them.
  • Address issues of discrimination in your own settings, quickly and fairly. What you do as the adult in the classroom, and in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge and office, matters.
  • Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think?
  • Offer experiences in STEM courses that build on student interests and culture. Find ways to use STEM to solve real problems that young people care about.
  • Don’t talk only to girls about these issues. It’s not a “girls’ problem.” Enlist boys and men in making changes. Use resources like “Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts” from the National Council on Women & Information Technology and adapt for your own setting.

Addressing micro-inequalities with micro-justice

A recent piece at Medium.com supports my argument that the “girls-in-STEM-issue” is more complex than just getting more girls to like science in school. “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention

It’s a very smart piece about this complex topic. I think the only thing I faintly disagree with is saying that “..leaders have to get rid of employees who engage in sexist or racist behavior” – I think that’s too late. It will be perceived as unfair and harsh, with bounceback attitudes that actually strengthen biases (“…women are too touchy – and now Joe lost his job…”).
I read an article the other day where a woman said every time she walked into the computer science building at college, people (nice well-meaning people) asked her if she was lost. Put yourself in her shoes. If you complain about that, it just sounds petty – but every time it happens it’s just another straw on the camel’s back that adds up to a clear message – you (and your ideas) aren’t welcome or wanted here.
Every woman I know has stories of the “micro inequalities” (NCWIT’s term) that add up to the feeling of not belonging.
The only thing I’ve seen work in the various workplaces I’ve been in is to strive to address ALL instances of sexist or racist behavior and language immediately and with fair, appropriate consequences.
In short, it takes vigilant leadership to create a consistent culture. For example, when meetings are fair, it’s because the expectation is that they are fair! Not sometimes fair, not that people apologize later, nor are things laughed off as being “no big deal”. The expectation is set every minute of every meeting – and especially not in some once a year “training”. Interruptions are not tolerated, language that denigrates anyone is corrected, and it happens in the moment. It’s too late if you only fix the headline-grabbing, egregious acts of discrimination.
The only solution to these “micro-inequalities” is “micro-justice”. Everyone at every level has to walk the talk and when incidents happen, no matter how small they are, no matter if they happen in the boardroom, the hallway, or the cafeteria, they must be handled in the moment with consistent corrections or restatements.
As far as how to do this, I just did a session at ISTE about Girls and STEM – collected a bunch of resources and am still working on writing up the gist of what I said. Slides and resources here.
One resource that I liked but didn’t have time to show at ISTE  (but I saved a summary of it in the slide deck, slides 29 & 30) – Top 10 Ways To Be a Male Advocate for Technical Women
I think we need to more actively recruit MEN into this by explicitly telling them what needs to change and what they can do. If we treat this as a “women problem”, men just think they should lean back and wait for women to “do something”. Men and women, boys and girls ALL need to be informed and empowered to do anything, and especially to know how to react to and fix the small things.
Consistent, caring cultures are built on “micro-justice” – fairly applied, consistently handled, and constantly reinforced both in words and deeds.

Free e-book! Best of EML 2014

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Free e-book

I’m honored to have an article included in Educating Modern Learner’s compilation of their Best of 2014 articles. Even better, it’s available for free as a lovely e-book!

Educating Modern Learners is a new website created to help every school leader become better informed to make better, more relevant decisions for the children they serve in this new, modern world of learning.

My article, What a Girl Wants, is included in this e-book, along with 13 other terrific essays and analysis of current education practice and policy.

Click on the image to go to the EML download page, and while you are there, consider signing up for a subscription!