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This past February, Danielle Kurtzleben’s article, “Grade-school teachers can push girls away from math, with huge consequences,” appeared in Vox, speaking to some very important and, tragically, very widespread misconceptions regarding the gender “math gap” in education. According to Kurtzleben:
“A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that something else might be at work here shaping the supposed ‘choices’ girls and women make. It shows that young girls’ teachers have biases that push girls away from math and science early on, which could be influencing where they go later in life.
Economists Victor Lavy from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Edith Sand from Israel’s Tel Aviv University looked at Tel Aviv sixth graders’ test scores both on standardized tests and internal tests in Hebrew, English, and math.”
In this research, Lavy and Sand tested to see if there was any difference in test scores if the ones responsible for grading the tests knew or did not know the test-takers’ gender. Their results clearly suggest the existence of a “systematic bias against girls in the marking of math exams.” And as Lavy and Sand followed their sixth-graders through the eighth grade and high school, they found that “those early teacher biases led to significant improvements on the later math exams for boys and negative and significant effects in math for girls.”
Of course, as Kurtzleben also points out, “this is a working paper, meaning its results are preliminary, and it studied students in a different culture and school system, so we can’t assume US students would see the exact same magnitudes of effects” (emphasis added). However, what’s most important about this research now, as Kurtzleben explains, is that it shows how powerfully “socialization takes hold early on” as well as showcases
“the power of biases — discourage a child from pursuing a subject, and she will, years later, later perform worse on that subject (encourage her, meanwhile, and she’ll do better). So when you discourage a whole swath of the population from pursuing high-paying fields, all those people will be much more likely to have lower-paying jobs.”
What does this mean for us in the here and now? What does it mean for us as parents, teachers, and/or fellow students? It means constantly interrogating ourselves and our assumptions. It means asking ourselves hard questions before we hand back that test or agree with our daughters that Yeah, math really is boring or Yeah, math is super hard, when we might be telling our sons, Yeah, but you can do it or Yeah, but you want to be a marine biologist one day, don’t you? The insidious evil of sexism is that you can sometimes be adding to the problem and perpetuating old sins without ever realizing it or meaning to.
This is a trend and social failing that should both greatly concern and anger you, for your sake as well as for the rest of the world’s. After all, as Kurtzleben so well explains:
“This isn’t just a problem for women; it’s a problem for society. This study suggests that girls were just as capable as boys at math at the start of the observation period, but they were slowly pushed away from math. To diminish an entire demographic’s talent at once is to squander their potential productivity, and economic growth.”
If we want to one day live in a better, more just, more equitable, and more peaceful world, then there’s really no better or easier place to start than right at home with the editing, improving, and monitoring of our own attitudes, perspectives, and actions. The hard truth is, we will only have justice and equality for all when we begin treating others justly and equitably.
All quotes and facts here were drawn from Danielle Kurtzleben’s Vox article, “Grade-school teachers can push girls away from math, with huge consequences.”
Admittedly, I was a little unsure of what I would write about when Nathalie suggested this for our theme this week. I sat at the desk in our basement office, hoping for inspiration but instead re-arranged the pens in their various glass holders and stared at the blank wall in front of me trying to decide which would be a better fit: a mirror or an oversized framed print.
When I am stressed or anxious I like to lose myself among my shelves of books. In comparison to most serious book lovers, say for instance Nathalie, my collection is modest but I find something soothing about running my fingers along the spines of books, some of which have been with me for nearly two decades.
In an effort to procrastinate, I pulled my favourite chapter books from my girlhood and arranged them on the floor at the foot of my…
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“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
— First Lady Michelle Obama, September 26, 2011
While First Lady Obama is perhaps best known for her work to combat childhood obesity, her work to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for children (and especially for girls) has also been—thankfully—substantial and groundbreaking as well. Improved STEM education is one of the clearest paths to a better future for our world and our children as technological and scientific innovations in medicine, climate change, and energy grow more complex by the day.
STEM education is an investment in everyone’s future.
According to The Department of Commerce’s (2011) Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, “though they represent a mere 24 percent of the STEM workforce, women earn on average 33 percent more when they work in these high-growth fields.” However, even with this boon for entering the STEM fields, and even though “women today currently earn 41% of PhD’s in STEM fields, [they] make up only 28% of tenure-track faculty
in those fields.”
Despite this inequality and despite the rampant sexism that is often reported by women studying and working in STEM fields, there are many significant positive steps being taken to encourage and promote more girls and young women to pursue the sciences in their education and careers.
For example, the Department of Education has recently created an “Invest in Innovation” fund that
“provides competitive grants to applicants with a record of improving student achievement. The program’s selection criteria prioritizes schools that support women and girls in STEM, emphasizing the need to increase the number of women and girls teaching and studying STEM subjects, and ensuring that both educators and students receive access to rigorous and engaging coursework, high-quality academic preparation, and opportunities for professional development.”
Moreover, NASA has recently gotten in on the game by teaming up with the Girl Scouts of the U.S. to develop a memorandum of understanding uniting the organizations “to achieve common goals: motivating and encouraging girls to do their best.” NASA was present at the Girl Scout’s annual convention and thus created an “opportunity for 17,000 leaders and girls to experience fun, hands-on NASA STEM activities….”
In other words, the government is trying to think outside the box for getting young girls more involved and interested in STEM today. But it’s not only the government that’s interested in mining this “new” vein of gold in the American mountain; clubs and organizations are popping up all over the place aimed at supporting young girls’ interests in STEM fields.
Take Kentucky Girls STEM Collaborative Project, for example. The Kentucky Girls Project, led by the University of Kentucky, is focused on “informing and motivating girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics…to build a strong, diverse workforce in Kentucky.” Many other states have similar collaboratives supported by various high education institutions including Illinois, Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, New Mexico, and others.
And even our local Texas schools like Lovejoy (Lucas, TX) have started including STEM courses in their elective rotation to support and deepen students’ interest and access to the sciences. Lovejoy now offers several agricultural elective courses to their ninth graders as well as an optional introductory course to design and robotics. Similarly, Ford Middle School (Allen, TX) has begun offering “Career Portals in STEM” as an elective course designed to introduce students to the careers of science and engineering. Of course, given that students begin engaging in the Science Fair as early as 6th grade (in TX) and that children of all ages are often naturally drawn to the splendor and wilds of science, these STEM courses and options ought to be made available to students much earlier.
If you’re a parent, mentor, or student looking to get yourself or someone close to you more involved in STEM fields, here are a few terrific ideas and resources to consider:
- Parents should Get Involved! Take an interest in a science field for yourself like astronomy or botany—any child is bound to love gazing through a telescope and learning about the constellations with you, or in helping to grow the very vegetables that they’ll one day get to cook and share with others.
- Parents should also demand that their child’s school provide more STEM courses for more age groups (petitioning the school and promoting increased diversity of course offerings can be some of the most useful work a parent can do for a child’s education and college prospects).
- Check out: Science Club for Girls, which runs programs like The STEMinistas (grades 6-8) and Show Me the Science (K-6).
- Look into: The Sally Ride Science Programs, Festivals, and Camps
- For our sisters and our daughters: The National Girls Collaborative Project
- For role models: Society for Women Engineers
- Also, parents, be sure to check out PBS’ great quick tips for Encouraging Girls in STEM. You can also look to the White House website for more information on current events and news related to women in STEM programs and efforts.