Some years ago, at a reunion with some old friends, one of their children came charging up to me and said, in a most outraged voice, “Your son thinks he’s a girl!”
I laughed and said “My son IS a girl.” Which made his little brain explode. He was confused because Sol had short hair and was wearing trousers, which did not fit with his internal image of a girl. But that conversation looks a little different now, since a few months later, when Sol was 10, they came out to us as non binary. This means they don’t identify as male or female, and being misgendered – ie identified as male or as female – is really traumatic for them.
At the time I don’t think I’d even heard the term. But more and more young people are identifying as gender queer or non binary, and because I write about it a lot, and advocate fiercely, people tend to talk to me about it. A couple of weeks ago I had two people approach me ON THE SAME DAY saying their kids had just come out to them. Knowing we were a few years further down the track, they were looking to us for support and advice. And every time I talk or write about it, more people contact me, relating to the topic. This is not contagion. This is empowerment. As there’s more representation, more kids feel safe to come out.
But this is not my personal blog, this is a blog about Data Science Education. So why am I telling you this? Because all of the well intentioned Girls in STEM programmes out there are explicitly excluding an already marginalised and often traumatised group. Non-binary and gender queer kids often have to fight simply to identify as themselves. They have to carve out a safe space in their families, in their schools, in their social lives. Asking them to choose a programme for girls, or, indeed, one for boys, is either directly causing them trauma, or explicitly excluding them.
The other reason that Girls in STEM programmes are a problem is that women are only the obvious part of our diversity problem. By trying to build the number of women and girls in STEM, we are only tackling the easy part – though it’s not that easy, judging by the sheer volume of women in STEM programmes and the persistently stubborn failure of the numbers to actually shift.
The problem is that we consistently attract the kinds of people to tech that we already have. We are missing big chunks of the population – boys included. Boys who don’t see themselves as nerdy, who don’t see the point of tech. Girls who don’t see it as relevant to them. Non binary and gender queer kids who don’t see themselves as represented or welcome in any of the tech programmes available to them.
If we had true diversity in technology and data science, we’d have a range of ethnic & cultural backgrounds, as well as people with a wide range of physical abilities. We’d have people on our design teams that are mobility compromised, vision impaired, with allergies, with varied gender identities and sexualities, with every possible skin tone and body shape. We’d have people who act differently, dress differently, think differently, and have different needs… I have headphones that don’t work very well with long hair, for goodness’ sake! Guess who was on that design team?
Fortunately, there’s a fix.
When I was teaching, and made the switch from teaching year 10 kids tech skills with toys to teaching them with data science, we not only doubled the girls in the elective year 11 computer science subject the following year, we also had a big jump in the number of boys who enrolled.
The key to encouraging a diverse range of people into STEM careers is kids learning that STEM skills are tools you can use to change the world. At ADSEI, we create projects and train teachers to empower kids to create change in their own communities. From five years old to 18 and beyond, we use STEM and Data skills to create change.
And we do it in the classroom, as part of the core curriculum. STEM is not an elective. Data literacy and STEM skills are something everyone needs in order to make sense of our rapidly changing, crisis-ridden world. We need to teach our kids to be critical data thinkers.
And the more kids learn data science and STEM skills from the start – the more they believe they can do it, and know that it’s worth doing – the more diverse our STEM workforce will become. It’s that simple.