Reflecting on #GirlsinSTEM

My mother was born during Christmas of 1947; her parents thought it would be cute to name her ‘Noelle’. When her baby sister was born some 15 years later on the very same day, they continued with the Christmas theme and named her ‘Carol’. If there’d been another, who knows – she may have been named ‘Holly’?

In 1960s Ireland, parents were expected to fund their children’s university education. While Noelle’s parents supported both of her elder brothers to study at university, her parents believed they couldn’t justify the expense of paying for their daughter to go as well since she’d probably end up married at home with children. She did marry and raise three children, but I knew she felt she was denied the equal right to education her brothers enjoyed because of her gender. If things were different, Noelle may have gone on to complete a PhD like her three siblings, but in 1960s Ireland there just weren’t as many girls at university.

I know I benefited in immeasurable ways from having my mother at home full-time – though I strongly empathise with her denial of equal educational opportunity. This experience coupled with being married to a Women’s Studies graduate has perhaps heightened my sensitivity  towards gender under-representation in Computer Science and STEM related study fields.

I’ve previously published blog posts where I shared my reflections, observations and wrote about activities I’ve been involved in around gender diversity here: https://teachcomputing.wordpress.com/category/girlsinstem/

From 2010 – 2015, I did observe a positive shift towards gender balance among my option groups while teaching Computer Science in school but particularly among the community learning activities I’ve led outside of school. Although I witnessed a positive shift it’s difficult to attribute this impact to one specific intervention, for me it stemmed from a range of activities, experiences, habits and behaviours I encouraged over a long time period.

I wonder now if I should have focused an equal amount of my effort on affecting and changing the perceptions of those groups whom we did not target, ie. their peers, their parents and other adults. For example, during one #GirlsinSTEM event, I witnessed a male teacher eagerly stepping in to assist when one group of girls were struggling to solve a particular challenge that I had set for the group. This teacher certainly thought he was doing the right thing; the girls were happy to sit back and allow him step in and fix it for them. However, his action was indirectly re-enforcing the exact perceptions that the event was intended to dispel; outmoded stereotypical scenarios in which “the man has to step in to help the poor girls”. If he’d just held back a little longer with his intervention or asked them some directed questions eg. “What’s the problem girls? What solutions have you tried? What have you not tried yet? Why?”, who knows – those girls he was about to help may just have solved it by themselves.

The other trap I fell into when focusing on gender under-representation in Computer Science was in thinking that it’s largely confined to STEM subjects only. Here are some interesting observations:

The number of women worldwide in parliament is only 20%, yet it has doubled in the last 20 years. With an increasing number of high profile female figures in politics eg. Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton – it seems inevitable that perceptions about gender are changing for the better, but how long will it take to achieve balance of opportunity?

Unfortunately, gender equality progress was too slow for Noelle, 50 years after she was denied access to the same university education as her brothers there is reported to be a 50:50 gender balance at undergraduate level in Irish universities. There is still plenty of scope for more progress, just 19 per cent of the country’s professors are women, and none of Ireland’s seven universities has yet been led by a woman.

I believe that there is positive change happening; I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues about the increased take-up from a more balanced group of children in their GCSE Computer Science groups. However, it will be many more years before this small though encouraging shift is represented in the workplace.

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