Girls and STEM: 3 Reasons We Are Going About This the Wrong Way

This year, everyone’s talking about STEM.  Specifically how we can get our girls thinking about  science,technology ,engineering and mathematics. And it’s worth talking about. No doubt there are plenty of jobs out there for computer programmers in the global economy – and not many women are currently taking them. This government report shows that women, although 50% of the workforce, make up less than 25% of STEM-related jobs.

But here’s my problem: While there are great products and services coming out of the STEM-for-girls revolution – like GoldieBlox, a building toy meant to inspire girls’ interest and confidence in engineering — many gender-equality advocates are failing to make any real difference because they are trying to fix girls rather than support them. Also, I can’t help but think that by marginalizing the arts, we are also marginalizing women’s culture – and their labor.

A Tough Problem

We have woven a complex “math is hard” culture around girls that keeps too many of them intimidated by and removed from all things STEM as soon as they approach adolescence.  Too many girls believe that there is a whole world of intellectual pursuits that is off limits to them.  As their self-confidence continues to erode, they will stop trying and eventually pull themselves out of the job pool for the highly-coveted and highly-paid tech sector jobs.  And, as a result, we all lack the benefit of what well-trained and well-connected women can bring to the table of scientists and engineers who are working on solving the world’s most important problems.  So, we can agree that we need to figure out how to get more girls involved in STEM.  But, as a girl advocate and a teaching artist, I ask myself three questions every time I am introduced to a new program, initiative, or product that is focused on girls and STEM :

1. Are we taking an asset-based approach to this problem? In other words: Are we making STEM fun for girls by pairing it with things they already enjoy?  Those of us in the field of youth development understand that creating  quality learning environments for children is all about providing them with opportunities to get to do what they already like to do — and to highlight the gifts they already have – so we can  establish a foundation for deeper, more meaningful learning.

It rarely works to say, “OK girls, the problem is that you suck at math. We don’t want you to suck at math. We’re going to do everything in our power to make you love math so that you will get better at it.”

This kind of environment is too narrowly focused on the problem.  All the girls hear is they “suck at math.”  How is that helpful?

2. Shouldn’t we be working to bridge educational silos? Our  educational system  teaches subjects as though they are disconnected.  We have science class at one time of the day, language arts in another – and art, drama and music, only if we’re rich.  This has created a number of damaging and false dichotomies that shows kids that there is no connection at all between the disciplines.

I knew from a very early age that I liked dance and drama.  I was a “people person” who was “good at English class.”  According to the silos, this meant I couldn’t also be “good at math” or anything related to it.  That was in a whole different realm. That was not for me.

There are still so many girls enrolled in dance, visual arts, and drama programs.  And they are learning so much in these spaces.  Just like high-quality STEM programs, the arts provide a  place for motivated and engaged students to develop strong critical thinking skills, the ability to ideate and access divergent thinking in problem-solving, and the ability to persevere when intellectual exercises get hard.  They also are social and expressive.  The arts honor stories and emotions.  They help us shape our identities and share who we are with the world.  The youth development practitioner in me – once again – sees the strength in this.  What if instead of minimizing the value of arts, we built STEM programs around them? I am certainly not the only one making this connection.  Many arts educators and advocates are working to change the STEM acronym to “STEAM” – adding the “A” for arts to include the arts as another essential element in helping all of students to thrive in the modern world.  We need to listen to these advocates.  One thing that makes GoldieBlox so cool is that it understands and builds this bridge.  With this toy, girls are presented with problems through storytelling and then, playing with their friends, they build solutions to those problems as they go.  Through incorporating the arts, we can celebrate and build on where many girls already are instead of forcing them into someplace new.

3.  Are we perpetuating the gender imbalance by placing so much value on STEM over other disciplines ?  I just have to bring up this last point.  About a year ago, I was at an event where a young San Francisco city worker shared the results of a study measuring  the performance of girls in STEM classes in  the city’s public schools.  She stressed that their performance mattered because, “It is very important for girls to have access to the high paying jobs in San Francisco.”

This kind of thinking strikes me as shortsighted. Of course, I want our girls growing up believing they can do and be anything they want to be.  Of course, I want to level the playing field so that men and women can earn equally.    But, I also want girls  to believe that their work is valuable, no matter what.   Shouldn’t leveling the playing field also mean re-thinking and re-forming a system that continues to undervalue “women’s work” such as teaching, social work and the arts?

A Winning Formula

In the end, what I am saying is: Yes, let’s encourage girls to reach their full potential, to become innovators and problem solvers.  Yes, let’s change the stereotype so that girls don’t walk around feeling like they can’t do math or solve logical problems (and conversely so that girls who love math and science don’t somehow worry that they aren’t feminine enough or that they have to fight an uphill battle against male counterparts).  But even as we encourage girls to pursue STEM fields, let’s not lose sight of what we really want for our daughters:  A world where they can feel valued and respected no matter what they choose to become, whether that’s an astronaut, a teacher, an actor or a parent (or some combination of all of these).  A world where learning to express yourself and connect with other people is seen as true intelligence.  A world where girls can have the option to buy a gender-targeted toy like GoldieBlox, but also feel comfortable using Legos or glitter or twigs or fairy wings or rocks or yards of tulle to truly build anything they imagine.

Check out how GoldieBlox is “disrupting the pink aisle.”


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