“How do we get more girls interested in STEM?” is a big, often-discussed question. When students are given a choice of classes, as they are in my school, many girls flock to art and music classes and steer clear of science, technology, engineering, and math classes.
After years of seeing a sea of eager boys and very few girls in my STEM classes, I sought ways to encourage a better balance, digging into the research on the gender-based choices children make about their learning and experiences.
As I always tell my students, before you can create something better, you need to understand the problem. The first step was to go to the source: the children. I designed a survey for grades 3 to 5 that included questions about gender perception and learning. Students were asked to respond to statements like: “Boys are better at math” and “Science is a boys’ subject.”
An overwhelming majority of the students had 21st-century attitudes about gender, or at least showed an awareness of political correctness in their answers. So why were the STEM classes so infrequently chosen by girls? What was the cause of the gender imbalance?
In my research, I came upon the phrase unconscious bias—stereotypes that people develop outside of their conscious awareness. My colleagues and I wondered if unconscious biases of well-intentioned adults might be at the heart of some of the choices our students were making, and we discussed the idea that students who answered in a politically correct manner on our survey might still have unconscious biases about their own or the other gender.
My colleagues and I decided to test out some of our theories by observing each other’s teaching and taking note of what students wore and how they played. We observed pink and pastel backpacks for most girls and superhero backpacks for most boys. We saw children grouped at tables with at least some girls at each one—a teacher explained that this boy/girl ratio was a way to keep the boys’ behavior in check.
We reflected on how often we complimented girls for their clothes and boys for their talent. And we listened to student conversations that contained more gender stereotypes than we had expected. This behavior was not prevalent, but it was frequent enough to prompt change.
Ed Yong’s research on 6-year-olds’ gendered beliefs on intelligence concludes that children show a marked shift in gender attitudes between the ages of 5 and 6. We found less consistency, but a similar general trend, in our own informal surveys.
We also considered Olaiya Aina and Petronella Cameron’s work on counteracting gender stereotypes in children, and their assertion that classroom environment is very influential in children’s thinking about gender and themselves.
This work helped us think about our own expectations on topics like boys crying and girls showing anger, as well as our general misconceptions about gender and behavior. We thought about what messages our classroom environments and small group arrangements were sending about gender expectations. While we felt the weight of our findings, we also had a sense of real excitement because we knew we had the power to shift our school culture and our own teaching, and influence how students felt about their ability to make choices for themselves.
One video also deeply shaped our thinking. “Creating Gender Inclusive Schools” helped us find a voice in promoting gender equity. It features teachers and students talking about gender fluidity, biology, and expression and identity within gender. It looks at not just transgender students but about children’s shifts on the spectrum of boy to girl and how they can occur over time and across experiences. A girl’s feelings about herself, for example, can shift one way on the spectrum in a STEM class and the other way at an all girls’ sleepover. A boy may shift on the spectrum as he moves from football player to poetry writer.
A New Understanding
Armed with a new understanding, my colleagues and I shared our knowledge and began taking action. We changed the visual culture of our school, adding displays of people in jobs that were not stereotypical for their gender: male dancers and nurses, and female astronauts and mathematicians.
We also invited guest speakers to visit in person and via Skype so that all our students could see and hear from women in STEM fields. Girls and boys engaged them in thoughtful conversation about the choices they had made and the work they were doing.
We could hear a change in our own conversations, referring to children as “my friends” or “my students” rather than as “boys” or “girls.” We started to see shifts as girls moved around on the traditional gender spectrum, enjoying at different times building a Mars rover, learning to weave, and mastering a new computer code. They were opening up to new possibilities.
This work began with a single focus: uncovering the reasons for the gender imbalance in our STEM classes. Today, the focus is greatly broadened. I still want more girls to take an interest in STEM and I look for ways to appeal to them. But more importantly, I now would like to see all children less shaped by the internal and external pressures of unconscious bias and more shaped by the freedom to make personal choices regardless of their gender. The work continues.