We are in the age where the world is waking up to many issues, gender being one of those. For a mostly male-dominated field like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), the issue is even more glaring. According to an infographic available from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, only 26% of the computing workforce in 2016 were women. This percentage reduces as you go higher up the ladder.As a founder of a startup teaching kids (male and female) practical technology skills, I’ve had to tackle this issue over and over again, not just personally, but also among those I work with. We constantly have to remind ourselves that we are teaching kids, not genders.
One of the courses that we teach is Coding. At some point in the course, the kids will have to put what they’ve learnt to use either by building games or creating stories. Our default thinking (unconscious bias?) is that making games is for boys while writing stories is for girls. But we’ve discovered that some girls want to make games and some boys want to write stories. And that’s okay. In fact, it is encouraged for creativity.
Overcoming gender bias in STEM will not be an easy task for several reasons. First, we (my colleagues and I) grew up in a society that conditioned us to believe certain things like the male child being the holy grail of the gender. Courses like Engineering and anything related to Technology were for boys — girls belong in the “kitchen”.
Secondly, and this is probably more unfortunate, is that many of the kids we teach are also being conditioned in this same line of thought. One would think that things would be different in the 21st century. Maybe they are different on Twitter where people are generally “woke”. The reality as we have seen is different.
We were teaching a class recently and there was a scuffle between a boy and a girl. “This is not meant for girls”, the boy said, referring to a robotics kit. I stepped in. “Excuse me, everyone listen up.”, I said, “Girls, do not let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you are a girl! The reason you are all in this class is to learn so no one is superior to the other. Thank you.” As I let them return to their work, I hoped I had made an impact in someone’s consciousness and maybe I had even though the very next minute, I heard complaints from some boys that the girls in their group, when given the opportunity, did not step up to the plate.
The last reason is related to the incident above. When given the opportunity, do girls perform at the required level? This is a genuine question and not meant to be rhetorical. Our experience has been mixed: we’ve seen girls outperform every student in their class and we’ve also seen girls shy away from responsibilities. This could be a chicken-and-egg problem: having not been given enough opportunity and always been told that you are a second class species, how will you build the confidence and skill required to perform?
The truth is, we won’t always get it right. For example, how do we balance equality with teaching good manners (e.g. ladies first)? I’ve also been tempted to force equality. I once considered giving outstanding performance prizes to a boy and girl when clearly, it was two boys that deserved it.
However, we won’t stop trying. Girls and boys should be given the opportunity to learn and choose — learn whatever interests them, whether Engineering or Arts and the choice to be whatever they want to be, whether Scientist or stay home mum.