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  • Arylene Reycraft

Evolution of Gender Roles in STEM

Many years ago (the 90’s in fact), I was a young, single parent with two young(ish) daughters. My goal was to raise these young women to be strong, confident women who could do what they wanted, where they wanted, when they wanted.

To become the women I imagined them to be, they had to focus on their education. Check. They were bright children who took particular pleasure in trying to stump me with their (many) questions. It’s fair to say their attempts did not go unrewarded. Consequently, they often spent a great deal of time researching things with which to challenge me. I’ll be honest—I may have feigned ignorance once or twice, but their pride in learning about things that I didn’t know, while slightly obnoxious, was really, really fun. And really successful.

And then there was junior high school. Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the professional educators who were (and are) willing to take on the challenges we assign them—but, I do feel frustration with decision makers, both historical and current, who have not seen the value in creating curricula that engages and inspires girls in the same way it does boys. Clearly, this does not apply to all girls. There certainly are many young women who have either thrived in their mid-level education or risen above it.

In my work, I have the wonderful opportunity to meet real change-makers; women who work in STEM and Trades, who mentor girls in grades nine through twelve. This type of mentorship helps them maintain a focus on math and science, being sure not to close doors on their future careers before they know what’s behind doors number 1, 2, and 3? And 4? And what about 5 and 6—those doors haven’t even been hung yet!

But my daughters, and most if not all, their friends were experiencing a very definite lack of inspiration through Junior High School. So I was very pleased and a little bit surprised when the ninth grade project was to write an essay about women who contributed to scientific knowledge. The teacher was a young, keen woman who seemed determined to educate and mold these young minds. I suggested to my daughter that she do some research on Beatrix Potter. She did and was amazed by what she learned. In her report she was able to incorporate the impact Potter’s incredible illustrations had on her’ as she too was a talented illustrator. By learning about Potter’s other life, science, at least that part of it, suddenly became relevant to her. If learning is not learning until knowledge is absorbed, then I am happy to say my daughter truly learned from that project. But she learned a little more than I realized. A week or two after she submitted her report, she came home heartbroken. She was so proud of her research, so proud of her work and of her connection to this early contributor. At least she had been proud of all these things until she saw the mark and comments on her report. She was told, in no uncertain terms, that Beatrix Potter was just a children’s book author and my daughter was expected to do her report on a woman who really contributed to science. I convinced her to accept her zero (yup…zero) but to make a case for why she wasn’t going to redo her project. By failing, she experienced first-hand how male-centric the curricula was and continues to be.

I absolutely do not believe that there is intent to create a ‘system’ that actively or intentionally disengages select student cohorts from their education. I also believe that there are forces that are decades-, perhaps centuries-old that perpetuate the idea that if it’s good for the boys, it will be good for the girls. Girls, who from birth have been given dolls and plastic tea sets, will suddenly be interested in trains leaving the station at the same time, but going in different directions… you get the picture.

I often reflect on my own learning through my children’s experience. I suspect it was experiences like the one described above that was the impetus for my current career. Techsploration is a Nova Scotian organization dedicated to engaging girls in grades nine through twelve in STEM and Trades, and mandated to encourage a focus on math and science. This small but (insanely) mighty organization has face-to-face contact with 3500 students every year through approximately 50 events annually; and has been doing so for more than 20 years now. Every year, since inception, we witness the impact of Techsploration. And every year, the comments are scarily similar. Girls continue to tell us that they have learned —really learned— that even though they know there will be challenges, they at least have a right to any career they want. This is great news for us; we are succeeding. Girls and women have had a real impact on science and technology. But why do girls and boys (and women and men) not know that already?

Perhaps, as a community of ‘outreachers’, we can offer our assistance to decision-makers as they strive to create education that engages all students. Perhaps we can offer support to those decision-makers as they face the flack they will undoubtedly get.

While I am very hopeful that we may see our educational system become more balanced, I am not overly optimistic that my granddaughters will not be branded as flaming feminists when they ask questions about women’s involvement in STEM. However, if my granddaughters do have to ask, I hope they start doing it in primary.

If two female professors applied the exact same lipstick at the same time, and each lectured to a large class for 45 minutes, and each took 17 sips from bottled water from the same company, how is it the lipstick on one professor faded in 27 minutes while the other remained fresh for 43 minutes?

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