Women in STEM – why aren’t we making progress?

This week, the Federal Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic, announced a review into Women in STEM programs. This is good news, because there are a lot of programs receiving funding to tackle the diversity crisis in STEM without any evidence of impact, or even the ghost of an attempt at evaluation.

I worry, though, that we are still missing the key point of STEM’s diversity crisis, which is that our STEM education currently attracts exactly the kinds of people we have in STEM already. It fails to attract, and sometimes actively repels, the kinds of people who are conspicuously missing from STEM fields – especially Technology and Engineering.

The Australian Data Science Education Institute, ADSEI, doesn’t run programs for girls in STEM, because we recognise that girls are only the really obvious people missing from STEM subjects and careers. It’s easy to collect gender information and count the imbalance. It’s far less easy to collect personality type, background, and interest profiles and see who else is missing. Yet missing they are. The folks who don’t fit that infamous “vocational interest scale” from the 1950s. (If you don’t know that story, do go read the article – it’s quite a ride!)

IBM researcher John Backus writes: “Programming in the 1950s was a black art.”

“In an effort to demystify that art, software company System Development Corp. (SDC) contracted psychologists William Cannon and Dallis Perry to create an aptitude assessment for optimal programmers. Cannon and Perry interviewed 1,400 engineers — 1,200 of them men — and developed a “vocational interest scale,” a personality profile to predict the best potential programmers.”

“Unsurprisingly given their male-dominated test group, Cannon and Perry’s assessment disproportionately identified men as the ideal candidates for engineering jobs. In particular, the test tended to eliminate extroverts and people who have empathy for others. Cannon and Perry’s paper concluded that typical programmers “don’t like people,” forming today’s now pervasive stereotype of a nerdy, anti-social coder.”

(Excerpt from a Washington Post Article: “Women Built the Tech Industry, Then They Were Pushed Out”)

Though men are overrepresented in this stereotype, there are plenty of boys who don’t see themselves as nerdy, anti-social, techy types, and who self-select out of technology based subjects and careers. Also, the stereotype leans heavily towards white, cis, straight men, pushing out many, many folks who don’t fit those categories.

So what are we doing to tackle this problem? We’re trying to give girls role models, offer them girls-only coding classes outside school, offering them opportunities to 3D print jewellery, giving them “safe” opportunities to play with robots… but what we rarely seem to do is give them good reasons to study STEM. And we’re completely ignoring all the boys who don’t see STEM as something relevant, achievable, or worth doing.

When I started teaching year 10s computing, we played with toys. We taught robots to push each other out of circles and follow lines, we drew pretty pictures with block based coding interfaces, and the feedback – from girls and boys alike – was overwhelmingly “Why are you making me do this? I hate it, it’s not relevant to me, and I can’t do it.”

When I shifted the subject to Data Science – teaching the same skills, but now in the context of real datasets, and problems with meaning – the feedback suddenly changed. Now they were exclaiming over how useful the skills were. Talking about using what they had learned in their science projects, in their exams, and when they encountered graphs in the media. Suddenly they were solving problems that did not have a textbook solution, so they had to test and verify their solutions. They were learning data literacy and critical thinking alongside creative problem solving skills. And they were learning that coding was not only something phenomenally useful, it was something they could actually do.

The next year we doubled the number of girls choosing to study the year 11 computer science subject, but we also dramatically increased the number of boys. It was an object lesson in how the easily measurable parts of the data don’t necessarily contain the information you’re looking for.

That’s why I created ADSEI – a charity dedicated to building authentic STEM projects using Data Science into the curriculum for everyone. Not tucked away in Data Science or Computing subjects where only those already interested bother to go, but in History, Geography, Maths, and all of the Sciences. In English, Art, and Food Tech. From the very start of Primary School (where we know kids are already losing interest in STEM) to the end of High School. In every subject, at every year level. We teach teachers, develop resources, and lobby for curriculum change.

When kids see STEM skills as tools they can use to change the world, we’re both empowering them to create positive change in their communities, and putting them in the drivers seat of the future. This is how we shift the numbers. This is how we get real diversity into STEM. And, incidentally, how we create critical, creative thinkers who can solve real problems.

For more information, grab a copy of Raising Heretics: Teaching Kids to Change the World, listen to the free audio version, or check out our adult Data Literacy podcast, Make Me Data Literate.

If you want help us build a better, smarter world, head over to givenow.com.au/adsei/ and donate.

And if you’re a teacher or a school, email us at contact@adsei.org to find out how we can help you engage your students with authentic problem solving.

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