Left Out by Design, or How the STEM Gender Gap Leads to Lousy Products

How to make STEM appealing and accessible to girls remains a work in progress, but some programs seem to have found an approach that could bring a solution into sharper focus.

How to make STEM appealing and accessible to girls remains a work in progress, but some programs seem to have found an approach that could bring a solution into sharper focus.

Beware, girls

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.

But this

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.

Headwinds

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.

  • “Maternal wall bias” has popped as a topic in a couple of studies, including one that found 43 percent of women in STEM fields stopped working after having children, compared to 23 percent of men.

  • 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.

Skewed, misogynistic responses to news about Katie Bouman’s work on the first photograph of a black hole proliferated online in the days after the announcement, amplified by search algorithms with their own intrinsic biases.

Skewed, misogynistic responses to news about Katie Bouman’s work on the first photograph of a black hole proliferated online in the days after the announcement, amplified by search algorithms with their own intrinsic biases.

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.

Only recently have crash test dummies in forms other than adult male-sized come into widespread use.

Only recently have crash test dummies in forms other than adult male-sized come into widespread 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

As well:

Numerous other examples are available here, here, and here. It’s a long, varied list of gendered testing procedures and damaging, real-world consequences for women.

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.

The non-profit organization Iridescent runs a program meant to attract girls to the field of artificial intelligence by highlighting its problem-solving, locally meaningful applications.

The non-profit organization Iridescent runs a program meant to attract girls to the field of artificial intelligence by highlighting its problem-solving, locally meaningful applications.

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.

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.

And, finally

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 eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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