Tearing Down the Intrinsic Barriers That Hold Girls Back in STEAM Education
- By Claudia Marroquin
Access to education and tools has improved drastically with the help of governments and private companies, but the most significant barrier still in place is culture. Perceptions about women’s and men’s roles in society developed over thousands of years of history are still prevalent today, and they are the most significant setback.
Even today, many people continue to assume that certain activities are better suited for either female or male, despite evidence showing no significant differences in cognitive capabilities. In fact, societal expectations have a greater impact in this regard, and until we challenge those archaic ideas, we will continue to pass down prejudice to the next generation.
Technology-related education programs and careers have always been heavily male-dominated. Women make up only 28% of the workforce in STEM-related fields in the U.S. and about 29.3% of scientific researchers worldwide. And although there have been several initiatives over the last couple of decades that target the disparity, we can’t leave the work to Microsoft and Google. As parents and educators, we need to do our part as well.
Starting From Home
Parents play a significant role in the perception girls, and boys develop at a very young age. From the moment they’re born, mom and dad project their wishes, perhaps inadvertently, onto their children by creating an environment that will help fulfill those expectations. In the long run, this can affect kids’ self-image, as they might feel unmotivated to explore other paths or pursue what they really like.
Adults need to realize that they shouldn’t assume their son or daughter will have particular inclinations because of their gender. They have to expose them to various fields and take the time to discover their strengths or where their interests lie. And depending on this, encourage them to develop additional skills to excel in that field.
How Education Leaders Can Help
The cultural barrier also has a heavy impact on the school system. As a curriculum designer, I have come across many educational materials that are still quite sexist, which is why we must raise awareness concerning this issue to leaders in the industry. This way, they can reinforce change by promoting improvement opportunities that have effectively shifted girls' perceptions of technology-related fields.
For instance, advocating for the inclusion of subjects suited for kids with different interests and capabilities and making those subjects part of the regular curriculum yields greater motivation and engagement. Instead of just focusing on STEM education, we should promote the STEAM approach because we believe that Art is a fundamental part of learning as it strengthens creativity and fosters teamwork.
As traditionally done, STEAM subjects are usually reserved for after-school clubs or electives, where boys are encouraged to join more than girls. This leads to girls feeling unmotivated to sign up because they notice, for example, that the robotics club is an all-boys affair. Instead, by making science, technology, engineering, art, and math part of the regular curriculum, all children are equally encouraged to try out and see what they like and where their talents shine the most. Nowadays, we see plenty of girls participating in the robotics competitions we organize at TBox, and many of them win first place. That way, their contributions are more visible to their teachers and parents, who can then motivate them to explore their abilities even further.
Moreover, examples are a great way to help tear the perception barrier that holds girls back. If more girls see that others are doing interesting, cool projects, they might feel motivated to try too. When I was younger, I barely saw girls in tech events. Code.org does a great job of highlighting women’s contributions to tech. And we’ve also seen progress in the fictional realm with characters like Black Panther’s Shuri, a young scientist in charge of everything involving Wakanda’s cutting-edge technology.
All Hands on Deck
The process of tearing down these cultural perceptions might be slow, but there is steady progress. We need to get everyone on board to push this issue even further. On the one hand, parents should encourage their children to participate in what they like, breaking stereotypes and disregarding what marketing executives decided was “appropriate” for girls or boys.
As for the education system, we also need to ensure teachers are fully aware of the issue to help them understand the importance of encouraging both girls and boys in their formative process, wherever that might lead them. Technology (or any career) has no gender; it should be open to everyone who feels a genuine interest in it.
Currently, the equipment, tools, and software needed for STEAM education are more accessible than ever, in terms of gender and in different geographies and income levels. With very little, you can do a lot. This means that —in most cases— whoever feels curiosity about these subjects and wants to try their hand at coding or programming an animation can do so whether they’re a girl, a boy, or someone in between.
There is a lot of work ahead of us, and we’ll need a lot of help to change the perceptions we have as a society. But the changes I have seen in the past decade and what I come across in my day-to-day working with students and teachers from different schools give me hope for what lies ahead for our future female scientists, engineers, or artists.
Claudia Marroquin is the Curriculum Design Director at TBox, a strategic partner that strengthens students’ skills from preschool to high school, through a STEAM-based technological career, building the competencies they need to be leaders.