Addressing Gender Bias in Youth

Hi everyone! Quick recap: this bi-weekly column, Gems in STEM, is a place to learn about various STEM topics that I find exciting, and that I hope will excite you too. Future columns may include social issues in STEM, its intersections with other subjects, and various other topics that are prominent in these fields.

Note: this is a transcript of my talk at the Youth STEM Summit 2020, edited for clarity. Also included are images from the presentation, icons by Flaticon.

When I was in third grade at my very first math competition, a random boy asked me, “What’re you doing here? Girls aren’t good at math, you’re not going to win.” After I heard this, I was stunned and confused, but I kept quiet because I didn’t know how to respond. But the more I thought about it, the more indignant I got. Who’s this guy to tell me what I can and can’t do? I promised to myself that I’d prove him wrong. But, what’s to stop all the other third grade boys who think the same thing? And who’s going to help and encourage the young girls and gender minorities who are consistently told they’re not good enough?

I want to talk about this problem concerning STEM gender bias in youth, which is that we don’t talk about it. It’s true that there are many panels and talks where wonderful women speak about their experiences and reassure youth that they are not alone, panels that have always inspired me personally. But, these conversations are often not directed at the people who perpetuate gender bias, and we’re not actively addressing it early on when kids are at their most impressionable.

Gender bias has been around for so long, and is not going anywhere unless we consistently increase our efforts to get rid of it. Even as far back as 4000 years ago, in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, women were treated more harshly than men in the same situations, which we all know is still true today– from the wage gap to simple interactions in the classroom.

When these biases are left unaddressed through elementary school, middle school, high school, it’s no surprise that girls and gender minorities who enjoyed STEM in school don’t pursue it in college. We need to create an environment where open conversation between adults and youth about prejudice is normalized and welcomed.

To do this, we first need to understand why this problem exists.

What creates gender bias so early?

I know from personal experience that as early as elementary school, the idea that mathematics is a man’s field, is already prominent, along with other STEM fields. But, why is this the case? There are a couple reasons.

  1. Indoctrinated stereotypes

Gender stereotypes are forced onto young children, whether they realize it or not. Parents and even teachers often subconsciously underestimate the STEM abilities of kids who are not boys, which only reinforce the idea that they are less capable. Research shows that this is the cause for around half the gender gap in math achievement.

2. Fewer role models

One of the biggest factors of gender bias in youth is that there is a lack of gender diverse role models they know about. How long have you known the name Albert Einstein? Isaac Newton? These are staple STEM figures. But what about Ada Lovelace, who is considered to be the first computer programmer? When did you hear the name Marie Curie? Or Katherine Johnson? These significant gender, and diversity, gaps in knowledge of STEM figures perpetuates the idea that these fields are for men. The lack of role models is not because they don’t exist, but that they aren’t talked and taught about because of how ingrained gender bias is in our education system.

3. STEM anxiety

Similar to how stereotypes are passed down, STEM anxiety is also passed on. In early education, a majority of teachers are women, and research shows that they often have anxiety about math that is passed on to their students, especially girls. Additionally, young girls tend to hold themselves to a higher standard than boys. Not only is this standard self-imposed, teachers also are shown to grade girls harder for the same work.

Some Numbers:

Here are some statistics that show how widespread this problem is.

Men in STEM make an average of $18,000 more than women in STEM annually. 21% of engineering majors are women and only around 19% of computer and information science majors are women, with similar low numbers in other STEM fields.

And by third grade, many girls have already lost confidence in math. Whereas boys are likely to say they are strong in math by 2nd grade. Even though at this point, there are no significant performance differences by gender. So how do we address this?

How Education Needs to Change

We need to start by making major shifts in early education. First, there should be mandatory classes concerning the history of women and minorities in STEM in elementary school and onwards, and how they face historical erasure. Teach them about Ada Lovelace and Katherine Johnson and Chien-Shiung Wu and Janaki Ammal, who are all significant STEM figures whose contributions go unrecognized in our education system. One of the amazing things about history is that you don’t need prerequisites to hear about the lives of people.

I remember in elementary school we had assemblies or one-day guest speakers to talk about saving water and reducing bullying. Have the same events for gender bias and discrimination. Have experts and people with stories come and tell them to the youth, because I promise you they will listen, and it will make a difference.

Encourage girls and gender minorities to tackle STEM classes by reducing the number of cold assessments and superficial success trackers in early grades. Instead, focus on the fun hands-on collaboration that exists in STEM at all levels, from science experiments to tricky puzzles.

We also have to equip teachers with professional training to address systemic and unconscious gender bias, in both themselves and in their surroundings. We should provide resources to help teachers with any math anxiety, and to avoid passing it on to their students.

Teachers and parents need to actively have open, understanding conversations with their kids on their prejudices, starting early on. If an educator or parent hears an unconscious bias, correcting it should be normalized, from colors associated with gender to a blatant belief that boys are better at something.

What we can do

All students, regardless of gender, should stand up to call out a classmate’s discrimination. Explain why what they’re saying and perpetuating is biased and harmful, and how in the future they can remedy their actions. Have an open conversation, ask them to listen to what you have to say. You can also ask them to explain their side, and they’ll likely realize how it may be harmful. I know It’s not at all easy, and takes an incredible amount of courage because of many reasons. Sometimes we’re scared of being seen as too sensitive or of losing our friends. I’ve definitely felt this. But we have to think to ourselves, do we really want friends who would react this way? Friends who aren’t open to discourse and unmindful of prejudice?

I also want to say something to any non-cisgender friends that might be here. Unfortunately, the world is still a place of prejudice for the LGBTQ community, and there is especially a lack of representation in history and current STEM. I hope that you continue to fight for what you’re passionate about, and help pave the way for youth just like you who might be discouraged by STEM’s current not-so-open atmosphere. They need role models to look up to and admire, and I can think of no time better than now to show your talents and knowledge.

This leads me into the last thing we can all do. If you are older, be a mentor. Be a role model for youth and show them how, no matter your gender, you can make a difference and pursue a rewarding career in STEM. And if you’re on the younger side, encourage your fellow classmates! Encourage your friends if you see that they are getting discouraged, and power through with them. Help lift each other up.

We all need to remember that there are no rules for gender and no limits to people’s aspirations. So, we owe it to these passionate, driven diverse youth to talk about this problem, with them and their classmates, and to work to dismantle it, so that one day all people are valued equally in STEM, regardless of age or gender.

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at apoorvapwrites@gmail.com.

I want to thank the Youth STEM Summit for providing an incredible platform for youth change-makers in STEM. I also want to quickly credit the American Association of University Women for their wonderful resources on addressing gender bias in early education, which I used in writing this.

Credits: The images are icons by Flaticon, slightly edited.

Until next time!

16 year-old mathematics student, artist, and advocate for youth and gender minorities in STEAM.

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