Girls are as accomplished as boys in science and maths. We need to change the way we engage with them so that more young women pursue careers in technology.
At a gardening and composting workshop a year ago, the founder of an environmental organization took a session on composting. This lady had given up a successful corporate career to help save the earth. During the Q&A round, a participant asked her why one must never mix half ready compost in the pot of a living plant. The environmentalist had just begun to explain when a man, who specializes in making compost pots, interrupted her with the assertion that he would be able to provide a better explanation because “there is a bit of science involved”. The assumption he was making was loud and clear: a woman would not really know about the gases that are released during decomposition, because it is science!
Sadly, that man is not the only one who believes in the myth that science is not for girls. Adults with young daughters & nieces and teachers with girl students often buy into the illusion that, unlike men, women’s brains are not wired to learn subjects like science, mathematics and engineering. Why is this a myth? Aren’t men and women fundamentally different from each other?
They are. However, recent research has suggested that the differences in preference for subjects are not innate but environmental. In other words, these differences are created by humans. Repeated studies have found that there is very little difference in the academic attainment of girls and boys in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) at the school and early college level. In fact, there is hardly any difference in the number of girls and boys enrolled in college level STEM courses, but the gap widens as they grow older. The number of women graduating from STEM courses is lesser than their male counterparts, not many women sign up for doctorate programs and fewer still build careers in STEM.
The IITs, India’s premier institutions for technology education, have an abysmally low proportion of girl students. The same trend is seen at the IIMs, which have now started awarding grace marks to women applicants in a bid to increase the number of female enrollments. But doesn’t such an approach harm the self esteem of successful female candidates, and worse, open them up to accusations of being less deserving by their male classmates?
A recent study to assess students’ attitudes towards subjects like mathematics and science provides interesting insights into the role of gender based stereotyping amongst children. Girls rated their abilities fairly low as compared to boys, despite both the genders performing equally well in the tests. It is a well known fact that children’s belief in their abilities is shaped by the attitudes and expectations of the adults they grow up with, especially their parents and teachers. It is therefore our responsibility to correct this anomaly, and make young girls believe that they are as good as boys in science and technology.
Instead of telling girls to pay more attention to science, there has to be a change in the way it is taught to them. Several interesting suggestions to make science more appealing to girls have been put forth by experienced researchers and educators. Girls enjoy meaningful relationships and have strong verbal ability – allowing them to converse with peers and discuss the scientific process can keep them engaged, as opposed to imposing the use of formulae and symbols upon them. Providing meaningful feedback on the strategies they have used, instead of judging them the final answer, can help girls appreciate the ‘right’ steps they have taken despite getting the ‘wrong’ answer. In doing this, girls can be made aware of their strengths in the subject.
“Science & Technology Fair 2011 – Kolkata 2011-02-09 0921” by Biswarup Ganguly – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Connecting abstract concepts like ‘force field’, ‘ions’, ‘bytes’ and ‘covalent bonds’ to the real world can also help a lot. Remember that the man in my anecdote talked about “science” in composting? It was about how decomposing garbage releases carbon monoxide, which can choke a healthy plant’s roots – now that’s a great real life connection to remember a poisonous gas!
Everyone is influenced by people around them. A teacher who loves a certain subject can infuse the same passion in her students. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A dislike for enquiry and experimentation can also be passed on to learners. Just as one would like to keep girls away from negative role models, one can gain much by exposing these very girls to women who have flourishing careers in STEM related fields.
Parents, get your girls to deeply engage with women who are physicists, astronomers, chemists, biotechnologists and computer scientists. Let your girls catch the enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to buy toys and experiment kits that help build scientific skills in your girl child. Even Lego blocks can be used to build spatial skills in girls, a skill that is often underdeveloped in the brains of young women due to lack of training. Show your little girl that the more one learns and practices, the better one gets at something. Using language that encourages the child helps too. As Carol Dweck’s research on malleable intelligence (which means that intelligence is not fixed but can be changed) has shown, when your daughter is exasperated and says ‘I can’t do this’, gently add the word ‘yet’ and encourage her to try again.
Fiona Vaz is an independent education consultant who loves bringing nature, culture and relationships into the learning environment. She blogs at Sugar Paper about books, travel, knitting, gardening …and whatever else happens to grab her attention!
Cover Image of Astronaut Kalpana Chawla courtesy Wikimedia