Girls Can Do Math

There’s a scene in the film Hidden Figures, in which NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson, a physicist and mathematician working on an upcoming space mission, to attend an editorial meeting. Stafford’s response is dismissive: “There’s no protocol for women attending.” To which Johnson replies by saying “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir.”


Hidden Figures is based on the real-life experiences of three African-American female mathematicians: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. Along with a team of other African-American women, they were employed by NASA to work as human computers, carrying out math computations by hand.


So why are we talking about this on the Twig blog?


Because most of the struggles faced by Katherine Johnson and others, as women in STEM, in the 1960’s are still prevalent today, research continues to point at the gender disparity in STEM fields.


Research continues to highlight the gender disparity in the STEM workforce. Reports from the
National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) show that the rate at which women/girls select science courses shifts at the undergraduate level and gender disparities begin to emerge, especially for minority groups.


Statistics also point to a mixed picture within the Core STEM workforce in 2016. Although a positive increase of 13,000 more women working in Core STEM occupations was seen, the proportion of the workforce made up by women decreased from 22% to 21% since 2015. Overall, women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce.


Statistics also show that in the US, race and ethnicity are salient factors in rates of participation in the science and engineering workforce.


Worrying, isn’t it?


Excuses about STEM inequality range from theories of pipeline issues to female scientists forgoing careers in favour of a better work-life balance. We cannot, however, ignore the elephant in the STEM room: bias. A study conducted by Dr Joan C. Williams and the Center for WorkLife Law states that women typically face five biases at work and each plays out differently depending on the woman’s ethnicity or race.


This gender bias is present in the classroom too. How many times have we heard the phrases “Boys are better at science” or “Girls can’t do maths”? Whether we like to admit it or not, we can all be guilty of bias, including teachers. And what’s worse, most of us don’t even realise we are doing it. Think about it. We know boys tend to volunteer more in class and a teacher who calls on male students to participate might inadvertently discourage her female students without even realising it. Reports show that these miscues unintentional or not, can have long-lasting consequences and risk derailing girls’ success in STEM subjects, according to the National Education Association.


Every time a parent tells their daughter “Let your brother play with his train set, honey” we are sending out a wrong message. And these biases run deep.


In a study conducted at Yale University, science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student – who was randomly assigned either a male or female name – for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.


There is plenty of other evidence suggesting that old-fashioned, sexist and racial stereotypes are still alive and well. Numerous reports,articles and studies repeatedly point towards bias as the culprit for STEM disparity. Given the mounting evidence, it’s no wonder girls and women opt out of STEM.


So what can we do? We can start small. Support and encourage female students to participate in class and have their ideas heard, and stop looking at women (especially those working in STEM careers) through the prejudicial lens. Teachers play a big role here. The ISS-T and ICM-S surveys provide strong evidence that students’ decisions to study STEM subjects in college can be directly influenced by classroom instruction and teacher advising.


Incidentally, it was Katherine Johnson’s teacher who saw her extraordinary intelligence and convinced her parents to move her to a better school. And it was Katherine Johnson who was responsible for calculating the trajectory for the first US manned suborbital space flight on May 5, 1961.


So the next time you hear someone say “girls can’t do maths”, you might want to remind them of Katherine Johnson.

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