We were driving home from school one night talking with our youngest daughter about her birthday party plans. She wanted Wonder Woman to feature prominently but wouldn’t be too upset if t was unicorns instead.
Our oldest daughter, eleven months out from her next birthday joined in.
“I want to have a Prodigy party next year!” she yelled from the back seat. Prodigy, is her favourite math game.
Our 8-year-old daughter was yelling for a math party for her birthday.
“I’ll come up with different stations and people can rotate through them solving the math problems!” she went on to say, explaining how a math party was actually really practical and easy to set up. She was also convinced her friends from school would be just as giddy as she was to sit down with some apple juice, some cake, and a calculator. There was no doubt that her conviction was real.
For the birthday that just passed, she asked for a science party. So as part of her Harry-Potter themed day, we had a young woman come in and teach a potions class where the girls and boys in attendance learned about solids and gasses and made exploding potions. They laughed and gasped in amazement and all said they wanted a science party too.
This is what happens when we look at girls and math or science at an individual level. It is what happens when we look at them in environments where they are encouraged to learn and build and experiment and fail and try again.
My daughter is really good with Math. She is really good with science. She is really good at building. She openly shows her interest in all of these things to anyone who is willing to experience the sensation being outsmarted by an 8-year-old girl.
She has friends who are like this too. Friends who I see playing math games with her during the extended daycare program my kids are a part of. They all show more interest in math and science than I ever remember showing.
So why are girls less likely to continue down a STEM-related path?
Well, I don’t expect that they one day wake up and say “forget all that, I’ll love something else now.”
In a Gender Bias in Stem Fields research article, Rachael D. Robnett, Ph.D. looks at what girls who express interest in the STEM fields face from an early age. “Beyond shedding light on the prevalence of gender bias, I examined whether encountering bias is associated with negative implications for girls and women in STEM. Consistent with hypotheses, experiencing higher levels of gender bias was associated with lessened STEM self-concept.”
In her study, she also notes that “61% of participants reported experiencing gender bias in the past year, but the prevalence rate varied according to their phase of education and field of study. In particular, women in math-intensive undergraduate majors were especially likely to encounter gender bias, which predominately originated from male peers in their major.”
It’s starting a conversation with a young girl with a comment on how pretty she looks.
It’s parental policies and daycare costs that fail families or that barely exist at all.
There is no one thing preventing girls from pursuing long and meaningful careers in STEM-related fields. But it’s not our girls.
It’s on us as parents, as educators, as employers, as people who control the gateways of interest for our young, developing kids at a young age to not just work on finding opportunities for our girls to pursue what they love, but also to identify the cultural roadblocks associated with those things. And then to find ways we can knock those roadblocks down so they don’t have to.