A techno rhythm blasts as three girls strut around on screen, laughing, twirling sunglasses and grabbing the attention of an older male scientist who looks up from his microscope, intrigued by the almost seductive teens.
What are we watching? This is the recently released “teaser” video from the European Commission’s new campaign, “Science: it’s a Girl Thing!” The campaign is designed to interest high school girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Yet, this video, with its pop soundtrack and fun, flirty women, maintains the sexist stereotypes that are so prevalent in our society, putting more pressures on girls: be smart and look good too! Once again, girls must be well-rounded, pretty, “feminine” and intelligent. Even so, the video isn’t irrelevant to an on-going problem in our society. It is, however, a failed attempt to solve the problem of why, at a time when women are increasingly found in business, medicine and law are there so few becoming scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians? Do girls need to be socialized from a young age to be interested in these subjects? How, without replicating stereotypes, can we obtain girls’ interest in STEM—making these fields appealing without using cheap ploys?
In 2010 the American Association of University Women (AAUW) compiled a study centered on the disparity of women in STEM. The research showed the ways in which girls are socialized both by their educational settings and by societal biases to pursue the arts rather than STEM. In addition, the report
“finds that girls assess their mathematical abilities lower than boys with similar mathematical achievements. At the same time, girls hold themselves to a higher standard than boys do in subjects like math, believing that they have to be exceptional to succeed in ‘male’ fields.”
How do females come to a conclusion that their mathematical abilities are lower than their male peers? Is there any truth to this? Some studies attempt to highlight the differences between the male and female brain. One such study was done by Voyer et al. in 1995 for the Psychological Bulletin. It suggested that the largest gender differences in cognitive ability are related to spatial skills, an area considered crucial for success as an engineer. If girls and their teachers are aware of these studies and treat their findings as fact, they are incentivized to give up on STEM. If girls struggle from the start, the go-to excuse is that they aren’t “wired” to study STEM.
However, the UUAW found that if girls develop in an environment that cultivates their success in STEM (particularly with special skills training), their proficiency can be improved. In fact, a 2009 Cornell University study (Ceci et al.) found that these biological differences were inconclusive. Thus, given these conflicting findings, and the uncertainty about claims of ‘hardwired’ difference, it becomes clear that if girls are educated and encouraged they are more likely to succeed.
Even if girls excel from the get go when it comes to math and science, why don’t they pursue these subjects in college and consider them professionally? One reason could be gender biases. Girls are socialized to believe that STEM is better suited for boys, and that even if they cultivate a career in STEM they are less likely to succeed. In 2005 Hartung et al found that girls “develop beliefs that they cannot pursue particular occupations because they perceive them as inappropriate for their gender.” (22) Compounding this presumption that STEM is for boys, many girls lack female role models in the field. In 2005 women comprised less than one-quarter of the university faculty members in STEM. If girls are socialized away from STEM, and if they lack a plethora of professional leaders, how can we expect them to want to enter into these careers?
But there is hope! With these AAUW findings, a number of organizations and websites have dedicated their resources to re-shaping the stereotypes around STEM. The question is, what is the most effective mechanism of change? Engineeryourlife.org, a website designed in 2004 by an engineering community, hopes to “encourage academically prepared girls to enroll in engineering programs.” They do so by highlighting female engineer role models, showcasing engineering careers (to demonstrate that they are within reach), and by providing high school counselors and teachers with resources and training to advise students. In a survey by Paulsen and Bransfield (2009), 88 percent of the 631 girls who visited the website said they became more interested in engineering as a career, and 76 percent said that it inspired them to take an engineering course in college. By targeting the girls themselves, providing them with inspiration, and by giving support to their educators, the website hopes to alter both the educational and social biases.
While engineeryourlife.org does a great job instilling change in girls, there is still the danger of simplification and stereotyping in the process (as was witnessed in the “Science, it’s a girl thing” video). In a blog post, Curt Rice, one of the “gender experts” for the European Commission’s campaign, suggests that the best means of inspiring teens to pursue STEM is to hear what they have to say. “If the campaign is directed at teens, maybe teens would have come up with a better teaser video…if the commission wants to show how hip and in touch it is, what could be more ‘2012’ than crowdsourcing the creation of a teaser?”
I couldn’t agree more. At Ma’yan we begin with the principle that “listening to girls is the key to serving their needs and interests…we start with the voices of girls.” If we listen before we try to change, we are better equipped to challenge stereotypes; we can ground ourselves with information from the teens we wish to serve; and from that foundation we can to advance girls’ self-worth and break the biases that continue to constrict their development as adults.