At my elementary school, we had five “Math Planets” which were hung up on our cafeteria walls. These planets were tools to encourage students to learn their basic math skills. Once a week, we would sit down at our desks and solve math problems as our teacher timed us with a stopwatch. Once a student “mastered” a math topic, their name would be written on a gold paper star and taped to one of the planets. After the student would landed on one math planet, they could move on to the next. In succession, the planets covered the topics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. I was determined to make my mark on the last planet, and through determination, angst, and one tearful breakdown, I became one of the first second graders to ever make it on the fraction planet. "Goodness Katie, be humble." I know. I'm trying.
I was a kid who loved math—or perhaps the attention I received when I was good at it. Yet, apparently the odds were stacked against my seven-year-old self. It’s unfortunate and unsurprising to hear about the biases against young girls who are learning the foundations of math and science. While most of these biases are not held consciously, they still make a harmful dent in the appreciation of STEM for many young girls. For example, a study was performed in 2001 observing naturally occurring family conversations at science exhibits in a museum. “…parents were three times more likely to explain science to boys than to girls while using interactive science exhibits in a museum” (Crowley et al.). Most parents do not intentionally withhold science-talk from their daughters, but in most cases, daughters are kept out of these conversations. This disparity alone can contribute to the gender gap in children’s scientific literacy.
This issue isn’t just prolonged by family-life either. Even in a kindergarten setting, perceptions of the scientific capability of girls versus boys is skewed. A large 2016 study states that, “Teachers consistently rate girls’ mathematical proficiency lower than that of boys with similar achievement and learning behaviors” (Cimpian et al.). While earlier and small studies have suggested that there is not a gender gap in early-education, this new data may give us a closer look to the issue. According to the same study, math performance begins to decrease significantly as girls advance from kindergarten to the second-grade.
Childhood is a crucial time to begin to understand the foundations of science. Children who advance in mathematics are more likely to pursue careers in STEM professions in the future (Anderson). These early gender-based disparities are likely a large contributor to the small percentage of women working in math-based STEM fields. In the first grade, I cried when I didn’t beat my PR on a multiplication quiz. In the second grade, I would use sidewalk chalk to solve 30-digit long division problems for fun. In the fourth grade, I watered plants with Gatorade and hydrogen peroxide and called it a botany research project. It’s hard to reflect now on the gender-biases that I possibly faced as an eight-year-old—but if I was facing some sort of societal bias, I was definitely fighting it.
It Doesn't End There
By becoming aware of the unconscious biases that we may hold, it’s easier to fix these issues. In addition, creating programs focused on STEM for young girls is very beneficial. Last November, I had the opportunity to spend a day at Girls: Engineering, Mathematics, & Science (GEMS), a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and the Girl Scouts of Kentucky’s Wilderness Road Council. This program gives girls the opportunity to gain hands on experience from local STEM related experts in their field. I created a quick video which summarizes the day and will hopefully spread the word about this fantastic and unique program.
Watch the video about GEMS Here:
How do you think we should encourage young girls to pursue STEM? Comment below!