Girls in STEM: What can you do in the classroom?

May 16
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I’m an educator in technology, an advocate for girls in STEM. But why do we need more girls in STEM? Because diversity is key to us creating a workforce that’s capable of building the technology of the future. 

Technology underpins every part of our daily lives but currently most of the technology that we use every day is built by a cohort that does not represent most of us in society. For instance, what does a 22-year old caucasian male developer know what I need in my technology, or my mother’s technology, or my grandmother’s technology, or seven-year-old girl’s technology? And vice versa I have no idea what young men want in their technology. This is one argument for diversity and having a workforce that represents all different users in society. If you’re not convinced this is important, there is endless evidence to suggest that companies have better financial performance, better company reputation, and generally perform better overall if they have a diverse workforce. 

Stereotype threat

But how does this translate to the classroom? Let me share an important concept with you, called “stereotype threat”. Stereotypes are one of the biggest challenges in getting girls interested in STEM. Stereotypes are defined as “producing expectations about what people like and how they will behave” (Aronson, et. al. 1999). In tech spaces, stereotypes are reinforced in the media through images of nerdy boys and men with the stereotypical big glasses, few social skills and a preference for pizza and Coke, sitting in the corner working alone. Even though such stereotypes are quite outdated, such stereotypes are often reinforced in the public discourse and this has far-reaching consequences of girls’ preference to join STEM. We stereotype people without realising; we call this unconscious bias.

How does unconscious bias impact in the classroom? Stereotype threat is perpetuated by the simple task of asking a girl to identify her gender on a maths test before she sits the test. Research suggests that by this very simple act, the girl will perform worse on the test than she is capable of because that is the expectation of her ability in society. Such tests were originally conducted with African-American males and similar results prevailed. They under-performed due to the self-identification of their personal demographics. 

Research from Aronson et al., (1999) suggests that girls under “stereotype threat” are likely to attribute failure to something within themselves. They employ this as a defensive strategy. Alarmingly, these widely visible stereotypes in ICT can impact even if girls are interested in technology careers, they can still be dissuaded through “stereotype threat” which often starts in middle school. Thus, when we invoke a stereotype-based conceptualisation of technical roles it is self-propagating; if girls are told that technology roles are not suited to them, then they will not perform as well as they are able to in such roles. Overall the consistent message is that girls and computing do not mesh well and that IT is not a favoured career option for girls. This has drastic consequences for our society. 

What can you do to beat stereotype threat in the classroom?

  • Promote a-typical role models in ICT – both male and female
  • Be conscious of gender biases in teaching practices and curriculum
  • Promote ICT activities and tasks that have a clear social benefit
  • Discuss the historical contributions of females to our ICT industry

Have you met Ada, Hedy and Grace? Their stories and achievements are a great place to start. 

Women role models in STEM 2

The next conference in the Improving STEM Education series takes place in Sydney in March 2017.  Attend for practical strategies, in-depth case studies and interactive sessions you can take back to the classroom. 

STEM 2017

Submitted by Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen

Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen

Dr. Jenine Beekhuyzen is the Founder of the Tech Girls Movement, a non-profit to inspire girls into technology careers, empowering them to build their own futures. The TGM is working to create a workforce capable of building the technology of the future. Dr. Beekhuyzen produced Tech Girls Are Superheroes and Tech Girls are Chic! – free books which have received widespread success with 40 000 copies distributed to school girls across Australia. Her advocacy for girls and women in STEM is based on more than a decade of internationally peer-reviewed research, and she has won awards for Innovation in research and for her university teaching. Dr. Beekhuyzen is also the CEO of Adroit Research, and is the Queensland Authorised Trainer for QSR’s NVivo software.

One thought on “Girls in STEM: What can you do in the classroom?

  1. Hi Jenine. My name is Beth Claydon. I met you at recent ISQ Roadshow in Logan. Keen to touch base re your session.

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