Recently I taught a chemistry class to high ability 10 year olds in Dublin. When my name appeared on the board a child immediately found fault with it. “You can’t be a doctor!” he exclaimed. At first I assumed that he was troubled by my youth or because I am the very picture of eccentricity. Unfortunately, that was not the case. “Boys are doctors! Girls can only be nurses”. What I found most troubling about this statement is that he didn’t think that these were two names for the one profession, depending on your gender. He knew these roles were different, and considered the “female role” to be a lesser one. This is not a view that should be held at any age, but it’s one I have encountered in our young people. What have these children seen or heard to have this opinion? Or a more important question might be what have they not seen? A cursory glance around any shop selling costumes at Halloween would certainly validate this boy’s view; nurse costumes appear in the girls/ women sections and doctors are found in the boys/ men sections.
As a bright young girl, I had a secret hobby of locking myself into my parents’ bathroom, plugging the sink, and mixing together every lotion, potion and powder I could lay my hands on in an attempt to create something new. I spent weekends trying to find animal skeletons, learning to identify different birds’ nests, carrying out studies on what food my rabbits preferred, and building different obstacles for my poor dog to jump over. Looking back, I was perfect material for a scientist, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study science at university.
Through my role as science instructor (extraordinaire) within the Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland, I have had many conversations with students and parents which highlighted to me that we still have a long way to go to before all girls with an aptitude for, or interest in, science feel as at home in the world of STEM as I did.
Diagram produced by one of our young girls participating in a chemistry correspondence course
Recently, I was tasked with teaching a nanoscience class for 8-12 year olds over eight Saturdays. This interdisciplinary topic provided me with the scope to develop a class where I could highlight the work of several female scientists and engineers. I put together activities based on work being carried out by some of these researchers in our university, and had organised a video presentation from one of my nanoscientist friends who lectures in Australia. I was so excited to introduce my students to this wonderful batch of female role models and the interesting careers they have pursued. My class consisted entirely of 24 boys. Not a single girl from our hundreds of eligible students had been signed up. Unfortunately, my planned intervention was too late. By 8 years of age, many of our gifted girls had decided that they would not like or be able for nanoscience, or worse, their parents had.
There have been many interventions cropping up in recent years aimed at promoting STEM to young women. It would be foolish to assume that high-ability girls do not require similar approaches aimed at them. Girls who possess high academic abilities are not immune to external influences regarding gender roles and “appropriate” professions for women. They may recognise that women can do these jobs, but they may not feel that they can. From surveys of some of our own teenage high-ability girls, we have seen that despite their great interest in STEM subjects, they’re often not very confident about whether they could have a successful career in STEM or even get into a STEM course in college.
Part of a hand-made thank you card made by a student after participating in a chemistry class
So what can we do to ensure that our high-ability girls are comfortable in the science classroom and can make informed decisions on a STEM career when the time comes?
Girls don’t do that
Potentially one of the most harmful things we can say to our bright young children is that “girls don’t do that”. Girls don’t get their clothes dirty, girls don’t play with gross things, girls don’t help daddy fix the car... If we keep girls away from building activities or electronics, at what point do we expect her to realise that she wants to be an engineer? If we tell her that girls shouldn’t get dirty, when will she feel like she belongs in the world of environmental science? Behaviour and interest should not be curbed based on a child’s gender. It is our responsibility as parents or educators to nurture the spark of interest in our children, not to orientate that spark to what it should be interested in.
I am very grateful to my parents for letting me get my clothes dirty and investigate my world when I was little. Their approach allowed a little girl to feel comfortable in the science classroom. Unfortunately, many girls don’t get such an upbringing, despite their parents’ best intentions for them.
In the 1990’s, an anecdotal trend emerged which has become known as “The Scully Effect". Young women were inspired by Dana Scully's character on The X-Files to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement. Female scientists and engineers need to be visible so that girls can see what can be achieved, or so they can accept their presence in a field as normal. Although most parents and educators have no control over how the media represents scientists, they can ensure that their children see real women in STEM. This could involve arranging for successful women in STEM to give talks or demonstrations in your school, or it could be as simple as inviting a STEM friend over for dinner to talk about what they do. It’s important for our girls to see that scientists look like them, and they’re not all old white guys with crazy hair.
Let her try each letter
As we know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Often we can find ourselves promoting one of these letters more than the others, perhaps due to our own backgrounds, interests, or views of what she’ll be good at. It is important for us to present a broad range of topics to our high ability girls, rather than further narrowing her perceived options. Even if some of these topics are outside of your own comfort zone it is possible to create opportunities for her to try out different activities from each of these fields. Coding classes, science museums, build your own robot toys, and rock pooling trips are just some of the fun things that may fascinate and inspire her.