“We can do it”: Getting to the root of the gender diversity issue in STEM

Written By Nathan N. Alexander

Our words are powerful. My last post here at The Poston Collective shifted our attention to the problematic rhetoric surrounding mathematics as it is connected to the diversity issue in STEM fields. In this post entitled “When Society tells youth that math is difficult, STEM diversity suffers, I generated my main argument as follows:

“Society tells us that math is hard. We tell youth to believe that some people are good at math while others are not. Some, actually most, take this to be true. As a result, we send messages that STEM is not only difficult but in many ways unattainable, given its constant use and dependency on mathematics as a discipline. As a result, youth steer away from mathematics and STEM fields altogether.”

One central point in this argument surrounds the messages that we send to our youth about who can, and who cannot, do mathematics. In honor of March being Women’s History Month, I will continue last month’s discussion with a focus on STEM diversity and gender, with a particular emphasis in the area of mathematics. By shifting our attention toward social end environmental factors and by dismantling the ‘gender gap’ myth that reinforce gender differences, we come closer to the root of the gender issue in mathematics and STEM. What we find is that our thoughts and subsequent actions matter in ensuring that young women, and in particular young women of color, are represented in STEM fields, as well as STEM education and policy discussions.

There is an abundance of scientific evidence that shows that women and men have the same abilities in mathematics. Yet, many discussions surrounding gender and mathematics performance still focus largely on uncovering differences in skill level. Still, studies have found that regardless of how women and men actually perform in a subject like mathematics, both men and women perceive women as having less ability when it comes to mathematics. For example, researchers at Columbia University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago used an Implicit Association test, which measures unconscious bias, and found that men were twice as likely to be hired for a “simple math job” than women.  The main differences in this study were based on implicit biases held by participants. Namely, these individuals didn’t know they held and used these biases to make decisions. Biases of this sort only deepen the gender hierarchy that exists in larger society and it situates males as the better suited gender for mathematics, as well as STEM fields, in the minds of youth and adults alike. Resultantly, the myth of the math gender gap solidifies gender inequity as an issue of perception and bias that impact access and achievement.

Biases are most often the result of stereotypes and have been found to have negative effects on performance and subsequent opportunities. Claude Steele, world-renowned social psychologist, coined the term Stereotype Threat to help us understand this issue with gender and workplace diversity better. In the original work, Claude Steele and his colleague Joshua Aronson found that Stereotype Threat provides clear empirical evidence on how negative stereotypes undermine academic performance between students of different racial and ethnic identities. This threat was the experience of anxiety when an individual had an opportunity to confirm some negative stereotype about his or her social group. Thus, in the context of stereotype threat, the idea that boys are better suited for math likely generate any differences in performance and relate to girls’ participation.

In addition to and based on biases, NPR’s Science Friday showed how social and environmental factors also contribute to the STEM gender participation disparity. For example, researchers made use of examples like boys being more likely to be given toys like Legos and K’NEX to build things than girls; they found that parents were more likely to think that their daughters would not like these sorts of activities. As a result, girls saw these activities as hobbies and not something that they would connect with an actual career. Popular culture and media supporting gender stereotypes—like this Barbie saying, “Math class is tough”—only further reinforce parents’ beliefs and stereotypical insecurities that young women internalize. These messages tell young women that boys are better at math and that their efforts will not ultimately matter. And, as Lisa Wade said, “People who think practicing [math] is pointless won’t practice it.  And those who don’t practice, won’t be any good at it… Y chromosome or no.”

The President of American Women in Mathematics, Ruth Charney, wants to shift the terminology surrounding women in mathematics; rather than saying women mathematicians she urges us to simply use the word mathematician. From her perspective, moving beyond the gender distinction is a necessary first step; I would agree. However, a simple shift in rhetoric will not take care of this gender issue. Moreover, shifting others’ biases—especially implicit bias—is an extremely difficult task and an issue of social justice. As Charney notes, the real shift is in helping girls to change attitudes and perceptions about themselves. Yet, in a society rife with inequities based on race, gender and class, and the intersection of these factors, shifting attitudes will not be enough.

There is a dearth of women of color in STEM fields based on a host of barriers that limit their advancement in these disciplines. Helping to increase the number of women involved in STEM is an important step to actualizing greater economic success and equality for women across the board. Furthermore, it helps to shift societies ideas about who can become scientists, mathematicians and engineers. The STEM Education Outreach program at Spelman College, as an example, tackles these issues head on and goes beyond simply shifting students’ perceptions. One important and key goal of this program is to engage middle- and high-school students in STEM-related learning experiences.

Spelman Professor of Mathematics Viveka Borum, and her colleague Lanette Wadelle of Vanderbilt University, found that African American females’ experiences in mathematics classrooms help to inform young girls’ interest and participation in STEM. In their study, they found that support, encouragement and exposure largely informed female students’ participation and success. These three factors begin very early in life and are a direct product of positive classroom experiences and constant “you can do it” messages sent in the students’ multiple environments, as noted by University of Georgia Psychologist Margaret Carr. Dr. Stacy-ann Allen-Ramdial, a contributor here at The Poston Collective, also discusses the importance of mentorship in helping to increase STEM diversity via persistence in the pipeline. She notes that having good mentors help to “assess strengths and weaknesses, to provide academic and career guidance, and to act as an advocate will serve to increase persistence leading to a more diverse STEM trained workforce.

Organizations like Black Girls Code, founded by Kimberly Bryant, provide an example of ways to move Drs. Charney and Allen-Ramdial’s words and suggestions to action. Black Girls Code (BGC) accomplishes two extremely important tasks. First, it allows young women, and in this case young Black girls, to know that they are capable of learning and producing usable technology. Second, and most importantly, it provides real-time guidance and mentorship as students participate in authentic and positive learning activities. BGC and countless other examples show us that it is critical that we not only tell girls and young women of color that they can do well in mathematics and participate in STEM fields but we must also encourage them to participate. Beyond encouragement we must be explicit about our need for their participation—they are vital to future generations. We can do so by providing an abundance of positive and uplifting educational opportunities that showcase the current diversity of STEM careers and engage these young women in authentic learning opportunities. In doing so, we are providing the necessary words, models and mentors and the opportunity for true engagement.

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