So angry about girls in STEM right now

I tell you, if one more person tells me that they think girls aren’t into tech because girls just don’t have the aptitude for it, I am going to go off like a firecracker. In fact, I think it’s firecracker time right now.

I can hardly believe that we are STILL, in 2017, saying girls go into biology because they are more nurturing, but I have heard this line repeatedly over the last few months. First of all, saying that boys are less nurturing is simply absurd and offensive. And secondly, suggesting that nurturing people should not go into computer science is how we wind up with software like Centrelink’s robodebt system that completely fails to take actual people into account. In an age of ever increasing artificial intelligence, we need a diverse and compassionate Computer Science workforce more than ever before, lest we  wind up with our whole lives controlled by systems that are rigid, uncompromising, and quite antithetical to human happiness.

Now, leaving nurturing natures aside, it is true that girls in STEM overwhelmingly go into Biology-based areas, and that “harder” sciences such as Physics and Computer Science have far more men than women. This is often touted as proof. Women, they say, just aren’t choosing Computing and Physics. They’re just not that into it.

But here’s the thing. As a society, as an education system, and as parents, we are constantly pushing girls towards “girly” things, even without realising it.

Quick: Picture a Computer Scientist. One of my students recently told me that when I asked him to do that, he pictured me, because I’m the only Computer Scientist he has met, but it seems he’s in the minority. A google image search for “Computer Scientist” produced 33 men on the first 8 rows, to only 6 women. That’s actually a much better ratio than I was expecting. Trying it with “programmer” got 35-3. Google, society, and almost every film or tv show we’ve ever watched is telling us that Computer Scientists and programmers are men.

Interestingly, a similar count for “Biologist” shows 24 men and 23 women, despite the fact that women make up 58% of Biology graduates in the US. Go figure.

We give boys tech toys, we give girls barbies and soft toys. And even if we try to be gender neutral in our own parenting, the gifts they get at birthdays will be overwhelmingly gender-skewed, and they will constantly see the kids around them playing with the things they are “supposed” to like. This kind of thing has a powerful impact on a child’s developing sense of identity. Girls who manage to break out of this mould and choose “boy” games/activities/clothes/hairstyles get sooo much pushback (having a daughter with short hair I can attest to this personally) that it is even more unlikely that other, less bold girls will take the risk.

It is, I admit, possible that gender plays a part in aptitude, but you can only say it’s proven if you provide a level playing field, with equal pressures and opportunities from birth and then see a gender difference. We are so far from this, worldwide, that we couldn’t even see it with a telescope.

Studies overwhelmingly show that we hire people who fit our stereotype, and our stereotype of “technical people” is men. We judge competence based on gender all the time, while being completely unaware that we are doing it. Even women in tech are more likely to judge a man than a woman as competent, even when all other factors are identical. We have been really well trained.

Girls are also pushed out of STEM by “invisible” factors, such as vocal boys in class who know a lot of tech stuff already, and therefore leave girls (and also inexperienced boys) feeling as though they are no good at it. They are pushed out by teachers subtly implying that they don’t belong. They are pushed out by all the people who are surprised that they are studying “boy” subjects. They are pushed out by being the only woman in the room. And they are pushed out by their male colleagues who tend to belittle and underestimate them because of their gender. Not to mention outright sexual harassment.

But the final nail in the coffin of the gender based aptitude myth is Harvey Mudd College. When Harvey Mudd decided 10% of CS graduates being female was not enough, they tackled these factors directly. They asked the more vocal, advanced students to keep their questions for afterwards. They hired more women to teach the courses. They stream their courses so that people with no programming background can learn without feeling inadequate next to people who have been programming forever. And it worked. Fast. Harvey Mudd now has 55% female CS graduates.

It’s not rocket science. But we have to stop saying “we shouldn’t push girls into careers they’re not good at” and we have to start saying “what are the factors keeping girls out, and how can we change them? ”

What if, for every time girls get nudged away from technical areas, they got nudged back?

What if, instead of saying “Oh, there just aren’t any women interested”, engineering companies went out to schools and started trying to recruit girls into STEM early. What if every girl, at some point in her schooling, had an engineer (or computer scientist, or physicist) (whether male or female) look her in the eye and say “You could be an engineer/computer scientist/physicist.” And mean it.

It’s so much easier to be complacent and say “there is no problem”. Companies, and universities, need to put their time and energy where their complacency is. Get out there and actively recruit women. Have “professional experience” days for girls so they can find out what it’s like to be an engineer. Give them engineers to talk to. Take girls seriously.

In my Computer Science classes in both year 10 and year 11, I have beginner girls who are picking up the concepts super fast. And, despite myself, I’m still surprised by it. As a female in Computer Science, I am still deeply conditioned to accept the stereotypes. If we don’t force ourselves to see beyond them, we can’t possibly make change.

Even if there’s a gender skew in aptitude (which, given that Computer Science was largely founded by women, I find difficult to believe), it means nothing in any specific case. A bell curve of aptitude tells you about populations, but not about a person.

So it’s time we started believing in our students, both male and female. It’s time we actually believe it when we tell them they can be anything they want to be. And it’s time we gave them the opportunities to find out what that might be.



5 thoughts on “So angry about girls in STEM right now

  1. Pingback: So angry about girls in STEM right now | Compute It Simple

  2. Great article, As a dad with 2 young independent woman, i want everything on the table for them. I know they could do anything. You’re spot on, on how this is indoctrinated from so early, and with the best of intentions. Keep the conversation going. We need to continue to change the game.

  3. I could not agree with your post more! Society pushes women away from STEM careers and use the excuse that women just prefer “more girly things.” All your points are spot on!

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