Girls Don't Want to Be Geeks, Or Do They?

STEM jobs are among the highest paying jobs on the market today; the starting salary for entry-level engineer is around 70-80k, while more successful entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates for example, are known to earn unimaginable amounts. One of the reasons for the high salary is because technical careers require highly specialized skills which often require years of education; most job seekers in the category have a Bachelor’s, or a Master’s in Engineering at the very least.

See Also: Top 10 Jobs for People With a Degree in Computer Science

Entitled “Computing Whether She Belongs: Stereotypes Undermine Girls’ Interest and Sense of Belonging in Computer Science”, the paper reveals surprising findings in regards to the reason why girls are often left out of STEM jobs. According to the research, it’s not the challenge that’s keeping girls at bay, but the design of the classrooms.

High School Girls Just Don’t Want to  Be Geeks

Generally speaking, recruiting females into courses like computer science begins prior to college. Introductory courses in high school are supposed to spark interest and help students with possible degree selection for college applications. "This is the earliest age we’ve looked at to study stereotypes about computer science," says Allison Master, lead author of the study at UW. It’s a key age group for recruitment into this field, she adds, because girls in their later adolescence are starting to focus on their career options and aspirations.

But the problem is that there really aren’t a lot of girls enrolling in computer science in high school to begin with. Why the discrepancy?

After surveying 270 high school students, they found that many girls choose not to enroll simply because they feel out of place in those classrooms.

"Our findings show that classroom design matters -it can transmit stereotypes to high school students about who belongs and who doesn’t in computer science," says Master.

Put bluntly, most high school computer science rooms are simply too “geeky” for the school’s female population. And at a stage where make-up, boys, and popularity define a girl’s social status, they are more likely to avoid the course, and the stereotype, rather than to think ahead about potential career options.

That’s why Bill Gates is a Monsieur and not a Madam -not because a female role couldn’t play the part, but because the imaginary Madam Bill Gates wouldn’t have wanted to be caught dead in that classroom all the way back in high school. While the choice may heighten a student’s popularity temporarily, the effects propagate much further into the future.

A few years later down the road, as college students begin exploring job fairs it doesn’t take long for them to realize the pay difference between engineers and human resource positions. But by then, there’s already a huge hurdle in changing career paths, especially when it involves extended studies, costly tuitions, and late graduation. However, this does not mean that girls don’t care for the lucrative job market.

Somewhere between high school and getting a job gig there is a culprit, and according to Master’s team, it’s the unnecessary stereotype associated with STEM courses and career. In other words, if we want to recruit more girls into science fields, where they have an equal chance of being the next Armstrong, Darwin, or Gates, then high school classroom design needs to be more neutral and considerate towards female students in that phase of life.

Removing the Techie Stereotype

In their study, the researchers surveyed high school boys and girls on their interest to enroll in a computer science class, how they felt about their sense of belonging in the class, and their personal rating for how well they fit into the standing “stereotype.”

They then showed the students two photographs of computer science room designs -one decorated with objects that represented the typical “geeky” side of things, like Star Trek posters and pictures of computer parts, and another with a more neutral setting with nature and art posters.

Not to the researchers surprise, roughly 70 percent of the girls say they preferred the non-stereotypical classroom and would be more likely to enroll in a computer science course if it was indeed decorated like so. In fact, the female students’ interest in the subject was increased by almost three times!

And the boys? They couldn’t care less about how the classroom looked. They loved programming nevertheless.

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As Allison Master explains, fitting in is a barrier that isn’t there for boys at that age. Girls have to worry about an extra level of belonging that boys don’t have to grapple with, she says. Not that high school boys don’t grapple with self-image, and popularity is certainly still a factor. But the difference is that somehow, they don’t seem to let that affect their course selections as much as girls do. Males just seem to have a more neutral perspective towards education and career.

It’s safe to say then that computer science and technical education stereotypes only affects girls. Teachers should take this into consideration when preparing their classroom and lectures.

Identity and a sense of belonging are important for adolescents, says the UW group, and drawing girls into pipeline courses requires tuning in to their needs at that age to fit in. “It is intriguing that the learning environment plays such a significant role in engaging high school girls in computer science," says Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

The team voices their suggestion as follows:

"If schools and teachers feel they can’t recruit girls into their computer science classes, they should make sure that the classrooms avoid stereotypes and communicate to students that everyone is welcome and belongs."

A Take on Gender Equality

It all boils down to presentation; the way we present ourselves is essential, not just in high school but throughout life. If we want more gender equality, we have to make sure that stereotypes are removed early on, perhaps even prior to high school. Though the researchers have only studied high school students, it’s fair to say that the image may have a deeper root from childhood and even parental influence.

For instance if your friend has a baby boy, you’re likely to buy him lego sets, whereas if it’s a baby girl, you’d want to buy dolls and pretty dresses. That choice alone is already defining a certain direction of what we think girls and boys should be doing. Thus, the gender stereotype, which leads to things like computer science image, may not be as easy to get rid of. Perhaps along with the children, the parents have to be trained as well, to remove stereotypes not just inside classrooms but outside in everyday life.

See Also: Why Science Needs Female Dominated Teams

Of course, that’s not to dictate what you should or shouldn’t give to a child. But the research findings should make us think a little about what drives career and life choices, and why fields like computer science just aren’t populated with as many female candidates. Perhaps equally important, high school female students may want to evaluate what matters more: a few years of social acceptance or a broader choice of careers.

Do you think stereotypes matter in career and education? Can you relate to this subject personally? Tell us below!

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