Reasons for girls to avoid STEM fields are easy to find. In any given month, it seems, more surveys, reports, and news events surface to make this case. The indictment is familiar: a culture too hostile and rewards too slight to make it worth the effort required to master the technical content and find a school or workplace that properly values women’s efforts and abilities.
Exactly this bias, though, also underlines one strong reason that girls should be encouraged to consider entering and persisting in STEM study and work. Too many technological solutions to problems faced by both men and women, in all the great diversity of human sizes, abilities, and backgrounds, work better or even only for men.
These solutions work less well for women because the teams designing them typically feature more men than women. One current study found that women made up less than 20 percent of the design teams at leading engineering and design firms. Historical rates of participation are almost certainly lower.
This imbalance infuses the work of design teams with a gender bias – conscious, unconscious, or in between – that renders the final product more useful for men than women. Clearly, simply the presence of more women in the field would help mitigate a problem like this.
It’s not an easy case to present to girls, though. Dip a ladle at any given period into the steady stream of stories about gender bias in STEM, and you’ll come up with discouraging results. From just the last month or so:
IEEE released a study of women’s experience in technology fields that found 73 percent had “experienced negative outcomes in their careers attributed to being a woman.” Cheery details ranged from questions about work being directed to men instead of the women responsible for it to outright and unwanted sexual advances.
And Katie Bouman. Stories this month about the awesome, complicated teamwork that went into producing a photograph of a black hole were widely accompanied by a photograph of a joyful Bouman, a postdoc on the project. Bouman helped to develop code that enabled the project home in on the shape and location of the black hole and render an image of it. After being celebrated as a successful woman in STEM, she endured a quick backlash of savage, gendered attacks on the work she contributed to the project.
So go ahead, girls, see where that interest of yours in math or coding or astronomy might lead you.
Costs of a gender gap
Even so, examples of technology solutions designed without the input of women illustrate why greater gender diversity is necessary.
Seat belts are a famous touchstone of gender bias in product design. In the 1950’s, federal regulators’ original guidance for designing seat belts involved testing on both male and female crash-test dummies. But automakers resisted the cost in time and money, and the final requirements included only average-sized male models. Besides uncomfortable seatbelts for women, a result of this design assumption has been 47 percent greater likelihood of injury in a car crash. Only since 2011 have crash-test dummies based on female bodies come into use.
Numbers on hiring in the self-driving car industry suggest we might be recreating this problem. A 2016 study found 69 percent of new hires were male, six percent female, and the remainder undetermined.
The list goes on
In the early 2000’s, a study found eight out of 10 medicines withdrawn from the market were removed because they caused greater harm to women than men. Drug testing has only recently assumed subjects for medicine other than the supposedly typical 70-kilogram male, 25-30-year-old male.
Formulas used to determine the optimal temperature for office spaces assumed this same 70-kilogram male as the norm. But the bodies of women and men experience temperature differently, for biological reasons, and women’s comfort level turns out to be about nine degrees higher than men’s.
A UK study looked at personal protective equipment based on “standard” male dimensions, everything from goggles to flak jackets to full-body suits. It found that 95 percent of women in the field of emergency services reported ill-fitting equipment had hampered their job performance.
Traction on an enduring problem?
Solutions to the gender gap in engineering and technology fields have been hard to find. The percentage of women earning undergraduate degrees in engineering, according to NSF statistics, has hardly budged from 20 percent over the last 20 years.
A theory of the case for a solution, though, has been coalescing around the importance of role models and stories about the real-world impact STEM learning can empower girls to deliver.
In artificial intelligence, for example, gender bias has threatened the utility of a tool that promises quantum productivity gains and exciting benefits. Taking square aim at this problem, a non-profit called Iridescent has founded its outreach and training for girls on role models, mentors, and women’s lived experiences in technology fields. In just over 10 years, Iridescent has partnered with leading tech firms to teach almost 115,000 girls and their mothers how to leverage technology to solve problems in their local communities.
IF/THEN aims to inspire young girls' interest in STEM fields by highlighting real-world STEM applications and their importance in our daily lives. A broad coalition effort, it launched in March underwritten by $25 million of support from Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
Snap the Gap works to combine hands-on learning, peer support, and mentoring relationships in a program to reach 15,000 10-to-12-year-old girls in California. An initiative of digital toy company littleBits, it also involves Disney, the University of California-Davis, and Million Women Mentors California as partner organizations.
All these programs aim to give girls first-hand experience of how their efforts – indeed, their design efforts – can generate results relevant to real-world experience and addressing real-world problems. Success in this realm, it is hoped, will fire girls’ imaginations and launch them into STEM fields, where they will achieve positions in sufficient numbers to remedy the blind spots and oversights in tech fields and other areas reliant on design logic.
Do you know of other programs using mentors, role models, and solving real-world problems to make STEM fields appealing to girls? How have they worked? Let us know what you’ve seen, and please do share with interested colleagues and friends.
Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at email@example.com.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.
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