When asked to draw a scientist, older children are twice as likely to draw a man than a woman.
The older the child is, the more likely they are to draw a man. The shift in results is triggered by girls becoming increasingly likely to draw a male scientist the older they get. A study of 20,000 students showed that 70% of 6 year old girls will draw a female, while only 25% of 16 year old girls do. Boys are more likely to draw male scientists at any age (3). Why are girls learning that science is associated with men, in a world where it no longer has to be?
Try it, ask your kids to draw a scientist and let me know what age they are and what happens.
In STEM sectors we are still finding the majority of applicants for jobs are men. But why? The majority of students in STEM are also male. Why?
Just before students get the chance to choose their specialist subjects, in their early-mid teens, there has been a recorded loss of interest from females in STEM (1). From this point on, the majority of STEM students are male. In the build up to this apparent loss of interest, girls perform equally well in STEM and have for many years. In some areas they perform better. So, why do they lose interest and drop the subjects?
The cause of this is not thought to be education. Though textbooks still predominantly feature pictures of men. Teachers are trying to counteract gender bias in the way they contextualise the subjects. For example, some teachers are making sure they use both genders in the way they describe real world examples of scientific theory. The cause is thought by many to be societal expectations and preconceptions.
Do you remember The Bechdel Test? It was created to test the presence of women in movies. There are three simple measurements;
(1) The movie has to have at least 2 women.
(2) Those women have to talk to each other.
(3) The movie has to be about something other than a man.
If you watch a film from the 80s, you’ll be surprised how few movies pass the first 2 measurements.To date, about half of all films meet all 3 criteria.
We may have come a long way from the origins of The Bechdel Test. However, it doesn’t take a close look at TV to see how prevalent gender stereotypes are in our day-to-day life. Gender stereotypes are perpetuated in soap operas that feature girls struggling in science, and films that explore the discoveries of men that discount their female counterparts. (If you want more examples, see my previous article on Women Leaving Tech.)
As parents we want our children to be the best of themselves, and if that includes getting them into STEM, we need to counteract the discouraging message they are getting from our culture.
In the US, studies have shown girls start to lose interest in STEM as early as 8 years old. So the interest isn’t suddenly lost just before college. As parents, a curiosity in STEM needs to be built into how we play and interact with our daughters from a much younger age. We can normalise women in STEM and make it an option welcoming for women who will thrive in STEM.
Here are my top tips that I’m trying at home to get my daughter excited about STEM.
There are many fun and visually exciting experiments you can try just with things in your home. There’s also a tonne of books out there such as 365 science experiments by Usborne that are fun learning activities. Here’s a video of experiments you can try with young kids to get them excited and curious about science on YouTube:
Such as, how many forks do we need for two families of 4 people for the BBQ? Or look at different shaped clouds and research the impact of pressure systems on the weather. You can always Google for the answer and problem solve these day-to-day challenges with them.
Let them get comfortable handling and playing with tools. Just getting familiar handling tools makes a big difference. And why not get them involved in fixing things with you!
For instance, what do you think is inside that discarded smartphone? Shall we have a look? You don’t need to know the answer, it’s curiosity that you are encouraging with this example.
If they love playing in the garden, find your science curiosities there. Tap into what gets them excited.
Share interesting STEM news with them, especially if there is a woman at the forefront. These can be current events or historical discoveries. Here is a book that I think looks inspirational, though we haven’t read it yet - Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky.
Pick up on statements such as ‘I can’t do this’ and simply add ‘yet’. Change the mindset of ‘this is hard’ to ‘this is an opportunity to learn and discover’.
Especially when contextualising and summarising STEM learning. It is too easy to say ‘he’ as a default and not realise the connotations of this automatic gender link.
A US case study showed that a group of high performing girls in New York underperformed in a multiple choice admissions test and as a result didn’t get a place at college. These girls were found to be less likely to make guesses and therefore underperform at multiple choice tests (1). Perhaps encourage the confidence to make an educated guess.
Be aware that your reservations will be passed onto them. If you say something is hard, they will think it’s hard. If you don’t know the answer to a STEM question, see it as an opportunity to learn together. You might not be a pro scientist, programmer or mathematician, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get curious with your children.
If you try these at home, let me know how it goes. I don’t know if my daughter will be a STEM heroine one day, but I’m going to give her a chance to be, if it suits her.