Saturday, October 22, 2011

Still Too Pretty to Write this Blog Post: Gender and the STEM Fields Revisited

Just a quick post to revisit a topic I've covered before. One of my past blog posts was about two articles, one covering a controversial t-shirt marketed to young girls and the other discussing a study of men's and women's spatial ability in two cultures.

I just read an article about women in science that also provides some support that women are just as capable as men if given the right environment in which to thrive. It's interesting, though, that the professor in charge of the lab discussed in the article, worries that cultivating an all-women lab (at least by accident) may be as negative as the "old boys" labs of the past.

Some research has found that single gender classrooms are actually beneficial for both male and female students. Of course, at what point should integration happen (because it will have to happen eventually, unless you plan on the workplace also being divided)? And are there any long-term negative consequences associated with single gender classes? Does it make it difficult when the student finally encounters a member of the opposite gender in an academic setting? Or do these students, because of the lack of variability in gender in their classrooms, never learn that gender might be related to academic skills?

It seems, though, that Professor Harbron has every reason to be concerned. After all, even though you could argue, "Male students just don't seem to be interested in joining her lab, so why should we force them?", that argument has been used for a while to rationalize doing nothing to deal with many female students' lack of interest in the STEM fields.

I'm all about encouraging people "follow your dreams", but at some point, we have to recognize the powerful outside forces that can influence those dreams. As someone who discovered a love of math later in life, I wish I had had someone to help me with my struggles and push me to keep trying. In fact, it seems to me, the best way to encourage students to follow their dreams, is to get them to try everything and hold off on deciding what they want to do as their career until it is absolutely necessary for them to decide.

Yes, I know that sounds kind of counter-intuitive, but hear me out. In many other countries, students are tested early on to discover what they're good at. At some point, educators determine what Joe Student is good at, and begin training Joe in that discipline. Sure, our system is not as structured as that. Even if Joe is good at a certain thing, Joe can choose to go into another discipline all on his own. Still, once Joe has decided what he likes, we direct him toward activities and classes that will get him to his goal. And, if we think Joe is making a bad choice, we may try to direct him toward something else. But, if instead, we give Joe a taste of all his options without influencing him toward one field over another, and keep doing that until it's time for him to decide, who knows?

You may be saying, "We already do that." But do we? If Jane Student expresses an interest in math, do we encourage her with the same vigor as we do Joe? Do we place equal value on all the different options students have, or do we make casual statements that direct students to one option over another (by suggesting one option is better than others)? If we can get rid of preconceived notions about who is suited for a certain field (and who is not), we can create an environment where students thrive. Perhaps Professor Harbron is right that her lab is no more ideal a set-up than the all-male labs from before. But by examining her lab, and other educational environments, maybe we can discover the best approach.

Thoughtfully yours,

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if being exposed to every possible career choice is necessarily the best path, though, since that can lead to "paralysis analysis". It might be good to have our parents and teachers and mentors narrow down some of the choices for us.