Self-Segregation: The only girl in the room
Sorry for missing last week. We got 14” of snow in a town known for constant drizzling rain. Things tend to grind to halt around here if the frost on the blades of grass gets too aggressive. A legitimate snowstorm means everyone loses their minds (and in many cases, their power).
A colleague of mine recently took her daughter to a Math Festival. After the event, my colleague asked her daughter how she like it. “It was great,” she said. “But they shouldn’t call it a math festival. I thought it was going to be a big boring math class, but this was really fun!”
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” opined Shakespeare’s Juliet, but the truth is, if you called it a stinkweed, people would hold their breath. Any marketing person can tell you that naming is incredibly important in getting people interested in anything.
Math and science are some of the biggest stinkweeds when it comes to kids perceptions (right up there with vegetables). When it comes to science, though, it is more than just stereotypes about science being boring that are turning girls away. Even subjects that kids are interested in often will not attract girls and, oddly enough, it is directly related to developing executive function.
Ah, executive function. Or as we parents call it, common freakin’ sense. “Yes, I know that your hot now that you’ve been running around with your friends, Spawn, but you’ll be cold later, so for the LOVE OF LITTLE PINK BUNNIES , please do not leave your jacket in the soccer field and forget about it.”* Executive function is the short hand for the whole suite of stuff that needs to happen in the brain to organize and plan. It involves thinking about and extrapolating future conditions and then acting on those conditions accordingly, right now.
OK, that’s a very simplistic description of executive function, but you get it. Part of development is learning to plan, organize, and act. Parents and teachers invest shocking amounts of time, effort, and pleading to get kids to think ahead.
The thing is, they do learn to extrapolate and think ahead, and build schema, and develop expectations based in their experiences, stereotypes in culture and media, and a random thing they overheard at the bus stop.** One message that girls get loud and clear is that a robotics/rocketry/programming class is going to be full of boys. No one wants to be the only girl/student of color/visibly disabled/non-traditional student in the class. As social beings we are innately in tune with our differences and they can make us feel awkward and unwelcome in any setting. A setting already fraught with stereotypes about gender suitability ratchets this discomfort up.
I’ve lost count of the number of times girls have told me they wanted to take an science class or join a science club, but they were afraid they would be the only girl in the group.*** I’ve heard this from multiple girls who wanted to join the same group/class. I have worked with groups of parents to help girls sign up for opportunities together, to ensure they won’t be alone. Many of my colleagues offer girls-only versions of workshops and program they’ve noticed are dominated by boys. The crazy thing is, the girls workshops are always full of girls who love science and have a blast. But they won’t sign up for the regular classes because they think they’ll be the only girl. The “only girl” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ve spoken with fellow educators who are faced with the conundrum of creating teams in heavily male dominated classes. If you’re dividing 20 kids into 5 groups of 4 do you let the 4 girls form their own group, and participate in active gender segregation inside a classroom. Or do you divide the girls among the groups and know that most of those girls are going to have an uphill battle to get their ideas heard and recognized? Sure some girls dive in with the boys, use their strong social skills to ensure full participation, and have a fine time. Most kids don’t have the social and emotional fortitude to fight the dominant paradigm, and these kids get lost, sidelined, and turned off of science activities. It is a seemingly, no win, scenario.
Over my years as an outreach educator I’ve seen this play out many ways. I’ve known girls who brokered deals with the female friends. You take this science class with me and I’ll take that art class with you. Parents use organizations like the Girl Scouts, to get their daughters exposure to more engaging science in a supportive environment. Dozens of girls attend SPICE camp each summer. But for every girl who makes a trade, does scouting, or joins SPICE there are countless others whose interest in STEM withers without taking advantage of available opportunities.
And so we get the refrain from parents and teachers that girls, “just aren’t interested in science.” No, girls just aren’t interested in being the only girl in the room.
It is important to discuss the choices they make with kids. What may seem like a child simply following her preferences might actually be a child making a social calculation. Maybe a girl is choosing art club over science club because she loves science, but she may be taking her second choice because she is envisioning a place where she will not feel welcomed or supported. We should all take a little time to ask our students and children why they make the educational and extracurricular choices they do, to encourage them to share their fears, to take those concerns and fears seriously, and to help them find strategies to overcome obstacles.
I think this is good advice for all kids in all settings. I know from my own parenting experience, that kids can often over-estimate obstacles and make assumptions about barriers that are not necessarily borne out in evidence. As adults, we have resources and experience that can help our kids make choices. If your daughter is afraid she will be the only girl in the group, ask a teacher or administrator who has already registered or expressed and interest in the group. Encourage your student to invite her friends to join. As the people organizing the opportunity what they are doing to recruit a more diverse group of students. As kids get older, encourage them to do these things for themselves, but keep checking in, validating their concerns, and pushing them, just smidge, out of their comfort zones.
I can tell you from an experience, Robotics Camp by the name Girls Robotics Camp does smell a lot sweeter to many young students, but there are steps we can take to make these opportunities less daunting and more inclusive for our girls.
*If you’ve ever had children in daycare or preschool you know exactly what I’m talking about. The kid owns 10 jackets but only ever has that one ratty hoodie because all the rest have been left scattered around the school. If you’re lucky you get to dive into the lice infested 3 foot high lost and found pile to recover 65% of the misplaced outerwear. *Shudder*
**And let me tell you, the random thing your child half-overheard from a hobo talking to trash can at the bus station will carry a billion times more weight than the thing you’ve told them 3 times a day for 10 years.
*** I’ve also heard from many girls who found themselves the only girl in the group, and it’s always a frustrating tale of marginalization and under recognition.