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Dean Emeritus Katy Campbell, University of Alberta, discusses the future of girls and women in STEM education

In the education sector we remain concerned that girls and women seem less interested in the sciences, or don’t perform as well in those disciplines, and are largely absent from computer labs and video arcades, are overwhelmed in online spaces, and have less access to technical resources at home.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) summed the situation up when she shared that one of her enduring memories of childhood was of her mother telling her “not to touch it, she’d get a shock”. Gradually, educators have begun to turn their attention away from the “cultural deficit model” (i.e. women are missing key personal attributes) to examine factors in the social and cultural environment responsible for leaving them out.

What follows is a very brief summary of what we have learned about gender differences in self-efficacy and confidence, attributes strongly affected by social expectations.

What have we learnt about women and girls in STEM?

One of the enduring problems confronting educators in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is the disproportionate lack of involvement of females. STEM-related jobs are among the most available and highest-paid globally; limited access to these opportunities is a global economic concern for women. Lack of participation has been attributed to biased curriculum content, and problematic instructional approaches rather than to the inherent nature of the subject. For example, culturally-grounded gender stereotyping has a substantial influence on children’s self-concepts.

In a variety of ways, the media, peers, and adults communicate and reinforce gender-based stereotypes. These stereotypes impact self-esteem, self-efficacy, and confidence.

Curriculum materials, such as textbooks and websites, may reinforce these images, and also rarely represent people of colour, with diverse sexual orientations, or health-related challenges. In one study of 17 anatomy textbooks used in Australian medical school curriculum,  less than1% of the 6004 images reflected intersex or transgender people and only one of the images represented an Indigenous American male. In another study of Iranian textbooks used to teach English in high school and university, females were rarely seen as college students and were never depicted in high-level professions.

Since school educational materials can mirror social contexts of many countries, curriculum developers need to consider policies and technology-based resources for intersections in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, and other individual differences in education.

Digital divide continues by gender

One might think that the present digital generation would be attracted to technology use regardless of gender. However, even once people cross the initial connectivity divide, studies across Europe and North America persistently show that levels of computer and Internet use are lower among rural youth, female youth, and youth from families with low levels of parental education. Boys, older children, and middle-class children in developed countries benefit from better quality access to the Internet than girls, younger and working-class children.

These benefits, including the development of writing skills, ability to conduct research, collaborate with others and create multimodal presentations depend not only on age, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and geographical location, but also on amount of use and online expertise. Even after decades of research on this, we still see home computers dominated by males; these boys then have disproportionate access to visual images of the “typical” computer users (i.e. male), and thus internalize a societal view that technology is for men. Skills and self-efficacy shape and define the opportunities taken up by young people.

The vast majority of children at all grade levels in the developed world have access to mobile devices, but while boys report using mobile phones as gadgets, girls traditionally have perceived themselves as less skilled in terms of technology. This impacts the types of courses and, later, jobs that they feel are available to them.

The relationship between students’ self-efficacy and values and beliefs regarding technology, and their teachers’ expectations, gender, and socioeconomic factors correlate with students’ confidence in their own skills using technologies for learning. Learners from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to rate their skills as lower than their peers, partly due to a lack of access to the technology; females are more vulnerable than males to all these factors. Male teachers have tended to use more technology in their classrooms than female teachers, who have reported lower confidence and capability. However, the situation is slowly changing.

In one study in 2009, a greater number of female than male teachers used Internet and web 2.0 technologies in their classrooms, suggesting that these teachers used technology to enhance collaboration and social networking among learners. Many studies on the preferred learning styles of females reveal preference for a classroom culture that is democratic, highly interactive, and collaborative rather than competitive, with lots of class discussions, case study assignments, and opportunities to participate in activities related to social action. These leaners, and teachers, find social media, if critically managed, enhances the learning experience.

How can self-efficacy be affected?

Self-efficacy can be affected by symbolic modeling, such as those in the media and in edutainment (e.g.  gaming), and verbal and social persuasion, such as encouragement from teachers, parents, and peers. Consider the effect on females of the messages they receive about both their abilities, and their futures in math-related subjects and careers, such as engineering or IT. Also, learners trust the assessment of their abilities by someone they trust, or that they think has authority. So, if STEM disciplines have been characterized as “hard” or “masculine”, i.e. powerful and authoritative, a belief develops about “soft” disciplines, for example in the humanities, and the learners who gravitate or who are steered towards them.

This plays out as a significant gap between female and male levels of self-confidence in using computers, which may explain why male students are five times more likely to pursue a career in computer programming compared to females.

Given cultural beliefs about superior masculine abilities and skills, girls and women tend to judge themselves by a higher standard, assess their abilities lower, and show less interest in pursuing a technology-related career. It doesn’t help matters when the preponderance of males in the academic field of computer science, and the resultant male-dominant culture in this area of study, has been identified as one of the barriers that female computer science undergraduates face.

In other words, what other people think is what matters. Consider the damage done by the 2005 comments of Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, when from a position of power and influence he publicly doubted that women could succeed at the highest levels of science and engineering: not in every domain, just in masculine domains.

The balance between cultural beliefs and reality

So, what can we take from all this? First, when cultural beliefs support male superiority on a task, women tend to use a higher standard to judge their own abilities. However, if no gender difference in ability or performance is suggested, men and women and men tend to assess themselves by approximately the same standard. The good news is that these issues are amenable to interventions.

For example, in the “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) approach, utilized in education and industry, learners are invited to bring personal mobile learning devices into the learning environment. We have seen that the increasing adoption of mobile devices is helpful for girls to break through the perception of technology as a “male thing.”

However, while both males and females use mobile devices such as smartphones, parents and teachers do not point out that girls as well as boys can create sophisticated applications with them. In the US, coding camps for girls have shown great promise, for example, “Girls who Code”. Consistent with some findings that females may prefer to design creative activities over learning how to program programs developed for teenagers like the UK’s, “Apps for Good,” promotes creative learning programs, such as mobile app development, to build skills and confidence of young people aspiring to become technology experts.

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© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

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