Girls in STEM

If I hear one more person say “Girls just aren’t interested in tech” or “girls naturally go into the life sciences, it’s biological” I swear I will explode in a way that puts thermonuclear weapons in the shade.

At the same time, I get very frustrated with programmes that aim to attract girls to technology using 3D printed jewellery and sparkly shiny things.

I applaud people making efforts to get girls into tech. I really do. And having a diverse range of such programmes probably gives us a better shot at attracting a diverse range of people to the field. Which is great.

But I have two problems with the sparkly pink approach. First of all, I think it grossly underestimates and trivialises girls. Are we, as a gender, so shallow that it takes sparkly pink things to attract us? I reject that premise utterly.

And the second problem is that lack of girls is merely the obvious, measurable diversity issue in tech. We have a severe diversity problem that is not measurable with chromosomes.

The issue we have is that we are attracting the same types of people to STEM fields, especially technology, that we already have in those fields. That’s natural, to some extent – like attracts like. But if we are to design new technologies to be truly inclusive – like making our payment devices accessible for the blind , or creating wireless microphones for female speakers*[footnote] –  then we need a truly diverse range of designers who will question, challenge, and innovate with everyone in mind, not just people like them.

If we only have people in technological roles who have been immersed in technology their whole lives, then we will only have products designed for those people. And that can render those products inaccessible, and indeed inexplicable, to the rest of us.

So we need to attract a broader range of people into tech than we are at present. And I don’t believe that sparkly pink things are going to cut it.

We are grossly underestimating not just girls, but all of our kids, if we think that they are only attracted to fun and frivolous things. Attract girls with sparkly pink and boys with video games – you’ll just get more monoculture. What we need to do, more than anything, is to show our kids the relevance of technology. What can you use this stuff for? How can you make a difference? What does it mean?

When we used to teach our year 10s programming by having them write code to draw pretty pictures, we had low numbers choosing to study computing in year 11, and very few girls (around 5 at best). The single most common piece of feedback we got was “Why are you making us do this? It’s just not relevant or interesting.”

When we started to teach Data Science using authentic datasets with real problems to solve, we doubled the number of girls going into Computing in year 11 (although as a data nerd I do have to point out that one data point does not make a trend! What it does make is an excellent start.), and the most common piece of feedback we got is now “This is SO useful, and so relevant to what I want to do.”

That’s why I’m so passionate about the Australian Data Science Education Institute. Because if we can support teachers to put Data Science into the way they teach everything – from history and geography through to science and maths – using real datasets, then we are showing the kids how technology is relevant to everything they do.


[footnote] The microphone issue may sound trivial, but I was presented with a wireless microphone last week that had a receiver designed to clip onto a belt. I was wearing  a dress. With no belt. Fortunately I had a scarf around my neck that I could tie around my waist for clipping the receiver onto. But I should not have to rearrange my clothing in order to accommodate the technology. And what would we have done in the absence of that scarf? Seriously, how hard can it be to design devices that work for everybody??

2 thoughts on “Girls in STEM”

  1. Great post, great anecdote for the power of meaningful work. I hope you get to run a test.

    Another anecdote: my horse-loving 13yo is not interested in “programming” but 4 years ago tore through an online Java programming course because it let her *do* things in Minecraft. From day one: edit this string and change an item name in the game. Goodbye “Hello World”.

Leave a Reply