Bridging the Gender Gap

This blog post has been a long time coming, it was originally supposed to be one of my very first posts, then right before Christmas a friend posted this article and I promised to write down my thoughts.  Both times I got distracted and this post fell further into the depths of my “drafts” folder.  With a new school year looming ahead of us, it is finally time.

So why don’t girls like {to code? maths? science?}  Is it because it’s too difficult?  Is it because it isn’t pink or “girly” enough?

I think the answer is yes and no all at once.  Every single girl is different, so for some of them it might be too hard or seen as being something girls just don’t do, others might simply have no interest in these areas because they are interested in other things that are also worthy of pursuit.  I believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn these fields, but I also firmly believe that not every child needs to.

I cannot speak for my entire gender, but I will say two things from personal experience.  As a teacher of voluntary, technology based programmes I have noticed that up until the pre-teen years there is a fairly even amount of male and female students.  Some classes might be harshly skewed one way or the other, but overall it’s a pretty even split.  Then when girls reach the ages of 11-13 they slowly begin to drop off until it is quite a normal occurrence to have completely male classes in the teen and adult years.

What I found most interesting was many of these girls didn’t leave the organisation entirely, they simply moved from classes such as video game programming and filmmaking, to studio arts and photography.

So what exactly happens in these pre-teen and teen years?  Do interests simply change or is there some outside force pushing these girls to alter their course?

As a child I loved designing “websites” and “games” using MS paint and Word, I enjoyed science experiments, and geometry.  Then something happened around sixth grade and it stuck with me through adulthood. Math and science both got more complex, less hands-on, and I simply decided I was bad at them both and lost interest.  I just couldn’t see the real world applications any longer which made it difficult for me to understand how it all worked.

At the same time I never got into coding because I didn’t think it was accessible to me.  As a teen I would spend hours downloading skins for my Xanga journal and tweaking the code, but I didn’t realise that I was learning HTML and CSS. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I finally took a coding class and realised it was something I was able to learn and actually quite good at.

I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t interested enough in coding to pursue it prior to that, because if you knew how many hours I spent in front of the computer designing fake games and websites for my little sister you would think I was insane.  I just didn’t have anyone to show me where to begin.

So, what do we do?

1. We stop thinking that all girls are the same. We each have our own individual gifts, talents, and interests.  Some kids are programmers, some are engineers, others researchers, and still others, designers.  These are all important jobs that tie into technological fields and should be celebrated in the classroom as a viable part of the tech community.  The basics of each skill should be learned, but then you can let each child shine in their own particular area as they collaborate together to create a whole project.

2. We need to be encouraging and provide more hands-on opportunities because lets be honest, not all kids learn through reading and lecture.  Learning, no matter the subject, should aim to be fun and suit multiple learning styles.

3. Make it more accessible.  This doesn’t mean making it pink, it means providing more opportunities.  Girls can’t be interested in technology if they don’t even realise that it is something they have the agency to change and create.

4.  Allow for failure as a learning experience, not the end of the world.  Foster an environment where getting an unexpected result is simply another opportunity to learn and grow.  If, as research suggests, girls are more likely to give up because they think intelligence is an innate trait, let’s start retraining their brains to see how they can improve upon a previously negative situation.

5. Make the tech space more welcoming for females.  Now this one is less for the teachers and more for those working in the industry, but if we want more woman in traditionally male dominated fields we need to start making them feel welcome.  We can tell when our opinions and skills aren’t valued as much as those of our male counterparts, it doesn’t make for a place we want to be in.

6. Celebrate women that are already doing cool things with technology. We always hear about the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs of the world, but we seldom hear about the women in tech.  We are everywhere, but we don’t make the news.  Let’s change that.  (For a start check out CMU’s Ada Project)

Girls are a varied and complicated creature.  (If you don’t believe me, there are countless books about it.  Written by men of course.)  And they should be encourage to follow their passions, no matter what field it is in.  As teachers, we are there to guide them and show them all the opportunities that are at their fingertips.

Further reading:

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One thought on “Bridging the Gender Gap

  1. Really enjoyed reading this. Love the bit about accessibility for girls not meaning “pink” and also the bit about failure. My experience with the girls does seem to bear out that they equate something being difficult with the potential for failure rather than focusing on the potential to build on the experience. But then I also find it fascinating how one girl might say “hard” while another says “challenging” about the same thing!

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