STEM education for girls: Too little, too late, too pink

Girls are underrepresented in STEM fields, but how can we get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math? To date many STEM education initiatives have taken the sex ed approach. Girls are isolated from the boys and given their own, gender-specific, introduction to coding, building, and problem solving. The intentions are good, but segregation keeps girls cast as outsiders in STEM fields. Besides, forced participation isn’t the best way to cultivate real interest from the girls who participate.

Susan Sons wrote a magnificent article on the subject of getting girls into technology and what the culture has become for those who get there. Her article was posted for Linux Journal and is simply called “Girls And Software.” This is my favorite quote (She uses “hackers” in the positive sense.):

Young women don’t magically become technologists at 22. Neither do young men. Hackers are born in childhood, because that’s when the addiction to solving the puzzle or building something kicks in to those who’ve experienced that “victory!” moment.

Other people have been realizing this, which is why there are increasing numbers of programs to try to win over girls to technology and science at earlier ages, but the existence of these programs can create other problems. Sons shares this anecdote:

My son is in elementary school. Last year, his school offered a robotics class for girls only. When my son asked why he couldn’t join, it was explained to him that girls need special help to become interested in technology, and that if there are boys around, the girls will be too scared to try.

My son came home very confused. You see, he grew up with a mom who coded while she breastfed and brought him to his first LUG meeting at age seven weeks. The first time he saw a home-built robot, it was shown to him by a local hackerspace member, a woman who happens to administer one of the country’s biggest supercomputers. Why was his school acting like girls were dumb?

Thanks so much, modern-day “feminism”, for putting very unfeminist ideas in my son’s head.

This is why I have very conflicted feelings over things like GoldieBlox. On the one hand the GoldieBlox toys and their ads promote “girl power” by showing that girls can build, too! On the other hand they imply that girls can only build in the company of other girls and only if the components are in pretty pastel colors.

I’d much prefer a commercial for plain old Erector sets that features girls and boys both building things. Why is that so hard?

The argument for why girls need special versions of toys and classes tends to center on a need to tie engineering, technology, and science to things that girls already like. But what if girls were given the chance to like those things first? What if girls were given puzzles before princesses and tools before tutus?

More from Sons:

There aren’t very many girls who want to hack. I imagine this has a lot to do with the fact that girls are given fashion dolls and make-up and told to fantasize about dating and popularity, while boys are given LEGOs and tool sets and told to do something. I imagine it has a lot to do with the sort of women who used to coo “but she could be so pretty if only she didn’t waste so much time with computers”. I imagine it has a lot to do with how girls are sold on ephemera—popularity, beauty and fitting in—while boys are taught to revel in accomplishment.

My daughter loves LEGOs as well as cars and dinosaurs and trains and a bunch of other “boy” things. I think this is only partially because of something unique about her. She started playing with those things because those are things that we have around.

My daughter also likes dolls and dresses, which is perfectly okay too. The media would generally describe her love of cars and her love of dolls are two sides of her personality. I like to think of them simply as her personality.

When my daughter fills her Hello Kitty purse with toy fire engines she isn’t making an ironic statement about gender stereotypes. She’s playing.

Let’s stop holding up girls who like science and technology like they are medical miracles. Look! A girl who can code! OR You won’t believe who made this amazing science fair submission! (She’s a girl!) There’s a fine line between praise and incredulity.

Let’s also stop pushing STEM education for girls like it’s vegetables. It’s good for you! You need more! Eat it! There’s no fun in force feeding.

Instead let’s make sure girls, young girls, have at least as many building sets as they have dolls. That they go to science museums. That they are encouraged to take things apart and see how things work. That they meet women (and men) who work in a variety of fields.

Let’s make sure they see those things before we allow them to see the gender stereotypes. Before anyone tells them that certain toys and jobs are “boy” things.

That’s not only how we will get girls who grow up to be women in STEM fields. That’s also how we will get boys who grow up to be men who don’t think there’s anything odd about the women being in STEM fields.

Or at least it will be a good start.

Read the entirety of “Girls and Software” by Susan Sons here.


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