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Opinion: How to combat bias in STEM

Dr. Tonya Matthews interacting with kids

Dr. Tonya Matthews teaching

Dr. Tonya Matthews, President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, writes about what we can do to resist bias against girls in science education and hiring.
Googling “teaching girls about bias" might ruin your day. The top results are not encouraging.

When I was in school, I was encouraged to keep up with my math and science for two reasons. First, I was reminded that I was good at it. No brainer. I had test scores to back that up -- so it made sense. Second, I was told that a smart black girl like me should set herself up for success by choosing fields where bias would not hold me back. After all, when a math problem is right, it’s right. Right?

Apparently not. Last fall there was a lot of conversation about a study that documented gender bias in sixth grade math teachers, and measured the impact of that bias on students by tracking them all the way through high school. The outcome was predictable: girls showed progressively less interest in and adoption of higher math and science courses, while boys -- even those with less skill -- showed increasing adoption of higher math and science courses appropriate to their grade progression.

But still we march on! We know better and we’re doing better. Sort of. A recent editorial from the National Education Association noted that gaps between boys and girls taking science and math classes have narrowed, with boys and girls averaging the same number of high school credits in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes. The article cites one of many studies debunking myths that girls aren’t interested in or good at STEM. Yeaa! Still, the title of this article is “Bias and Stereotypes Sideline Girls in STEM” and is quick to point out that these milestones are having minimal impact on gender gaps in higher education or the workforce. Booo!

These are the calm seas and tyrannical typhoons I have been swimming in as we prepare to launch the Michigan Science Center’s STEMinista Project -- an initiative to boost the interest of 4th through 8th grade girls in STEM. At every step this program prompted the usual barrage of questions: Why girls? Are you excluding boys? Are you going to make science girly for the girls? Is this really a problem? I get these questions often. But, somehow, they give me pause every time.

From now on, I’m taking the red pill: The bias is real. Our young ladies are unprepared for it. They need a counterweight to these issues weighing them down. Let me propose a few steps for restoring balance.

Step one. This will be the hardest part: Tell the girls bias against them exists. That’s why I titled my google search the way I did. I was looking for strategies to help with “teaching girls about bias,” but what I got was a kazillion hits on the different ways bias exists in the classroom. This is a tough conversation to have with our girls and with our boys. But you wouldn’t send a child into a rain storm without a jacket. This storm should be no different.

Step two. This is the head banger: Do not be distracted by thoughtfully crafted assertions of women’s role in the bias against them -- or the suggestion that the issues are exaggerated. There are exceptions to every rule. You’re talking to one right now. But I’m a bigger fan of trends than I am of exceptions and I wanna be a trend. This strategy takes practice. Try a quick scan of this and this. The first article makes good arguments about the differences between male and female self-presentation on resumes when we describe our accomplishments in STEM-based work, and the second article shows good research that the same (STEM-based) resume with different names gets different results based on gender. If trying to pick a side in the great resume wars doesn’t make your head hurt, you’re not thinking hard enough.

Step three. This is the funniest: It’s not about the “girlerization” of STEM. Let’s consider the science of tampons. (As a former P&G intern, I can tell you there is a lot of science and engineering in a tampon.) The top three producers of tampons worldwide are companies run by men and the patent of the modern tampon was held by a man. I think tampons are pretty darn girly. But is the science behind tampons girly? It’s true that different innovations and different realms of STEM will appeal to different people, and there are some interesting gender trends in those appeals. And, yes, I’m for a “by any means necessary” approach to move the dial on gender inequality in STEM. If that means I need a pink logo and a STEM day camp dedicated to the science of lipstick, fashion technology, or pediatrics, so be it. However, the assertion that STEM itself -- any aspect of it -- has a gender gets you right back to step one.

These three things -- reality checks, deep thoughts, and a sense of humor -- are ingredients in the recipe for resilience. STEM is hard. On top of that, we have done a poor job of welcoming girls or people of color or 1st generation this or 3rd generation that into STEM careers and industries. Even so, I still believe every person can engage with and use STEM at a meaningful level. We’ve been approaching the elements of resilience as assets in the journey toward a career in STEM, but, under these conditions, those characteristics are requirements, not simply assets.

The good news: Resilience is not a personality type. It’s a learned skill, a world-view, and a self-actualization tool. It can be taught. It can be practiced. It can be nurtured.

I do not know if bias can ever be eliminated. But I am confident that, with strategic tools of resilience in our back pocket, it can be marginalized.
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