In the United States, at least, bridging the gender gap within sectors and industries is a big issue. Simply put, American society is currently concerned with getting more young girls and women to go into fields of study/interest that are perceived to be traditionally male-dominated. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field happens to be one of these.
Under this umbrella topic of bridging the gender gap is an entire world of topics. GRP webmaster benign0 recently examined one of them. He pointed out that though it is ultimately a good thing to get more women to go into STEM, they shouldn’t have to be shamed or deemed “uncool” if they don’t want to.
What is important is that young girls and women are exposed to all possible life and career options early and definitively, whether in STEM or the arts and humanities. Ultimately, they must be encouraged to choose and pursue the field of study that they themselves really want. Give them the choices with as little bias as possible.
Now, let’s bring into the discussion a short 2014 advert from Verizon. To those unfamiliar with the name, Verizon is one of the larger telecommunications companies in the US.
In the short video, Verizon depicts how young girls are subtly discouraged from showing interest in STEM. Phrases such as “how’s my pretty girl”, “put that down”, “you don’t want to hurt yourself”, “your dress might get dirty”, or “your project is getting out of hand” – these might seem innocuous and well-meaning coming from parents and adults, but the power of these words on the mind of a young girl in her formative years cannot be underestimated.
The setting of the video is within the United States, a generally more liberal society compared to the rest of the world. One can only imagine how much such discouragement and dissuasion is magnified in other more conservative societies. ”Women should stay home and make babies”, “women should give up their career so that they can take care of the family”, “women should stay in the kitchen”, or “women should stay illiterate” – we cannot deny that such beliefs that are already frowned upon in societies like the US do exist and persist elsewhere.
In reality, science, together with the other components of STEM, is more than just the stereotypical writing long formulas on blackboards, or performing laboratory experiments that go BOOM. At its core, it is being curious about, exploring, observing, and understanding the natural world. To do so inevitably requires a fair share of field work and physical and mechanical exertion, such as going out into uncharted and occasionally dangerous places, looking for species and phenomena that one has never seen before, observing nature’s wonders in their natural habitats, and building physical models. Whether dirt is actually involved or not, one does have to “get his/her hands dirty” in order to fully appreciate and understand the way things work.
Perhaps it is that physical and mechanical part of science that reflexively makes parents and other adults “shield” young girls from showing more interest in STEM. We don’t want them to get hurt or else it will diminish their “prettiness”. We want to form our young girls into prim and proper ladies, but part of forming such behavior involves “not being curious” or “not asking too many questions”. Getting dirty and hands-on is considered unladylike. Science is for geeks and nerds only. Spending countless hours on something popularly judged as useless, in “practical” terms, is so uncool.
As STEM is traditionally male-dominated, maybe it’s just the male ego at work. To allow more females to be as good as males at something will bruise that ego. No amount of feminism and campaigning for women’s rights as of yet has found a long-lasting “workaround” to that ego.
A school of thought in parenting that is more accepted nowadays is that parents shouldn’t stop their children from getting hurt or falling. Rather, they should let their children fall and experience bumps and bruises, but they need to be there for them to help in the recovery.
From experience, we also know that the more we try to prohibit children from doing certain things, the more they want to do it. Kids being kids, inevitably they will find ways outside of the adult field of supervision to do so.
Perhaps this is an approach that adults can adapt with regards to getting more children, not just young girls, into STEM. Get them to play and explore outside. Build and blow up stuff for and with them. Don’t get angry at them for being curious. If they have dreams, don’t shut them down; provide them options and tools on how they can get closer to them. Be there to tend to their injuries and supervise them in case things get dangerous, but don’t stop them prematurely. Encourage them to ask questions. Be there to answer their questions; even if you don’t know the answers, you can always look for them together.
The underlying theme is getting children to know the value of curiosity, even if the answers don’t always satisfy it at a given time. Teach them to understand the value of logic, rational thinking, and the scientific method. Encourage them to find the answers to life’s questions for themselves. Encourage them to think.
On one hand, yes, no amount of political correctness will change the fact that companies like Accenture and Verizon are encouraging more young girls and women, in the hopes of getting a better bottom line. All of that, of course, is in the guise of “corporate social responsibility” or “giving back to the community”. But if we step back and look at the bigger picture, no matter who is doing the encouraging and for whatever ulterior motive, getting more people into STEM as early as possible is ultimately a good thing, not just for the immediate communities concerned, but for humanity in general.
We must be careful, however, not to assume that increased quantity will automatically result in better quality, or that the next big scientific discovery will necessarily be a product of increased interest in STEM. As with other disciplines, it requires just that – discipline. It also requires proper guidance and an organized approach to things. Increased interest in STEM is also a harder sell to conservative folks than it looks; in some societies apathy, ignorance, and pre-conceived notions of STEM are just as difficult an opposition as disinterest in it is.
Depending on the century or era, there have been several driving forces for the advancement of STEM. In older times it was because those who dared to think differently wanted to know the true place of humans and the Earth relative to the rest of the universe. In another time, humanity wanted to get to the moon and beyond first. Or ever more grimly, we wanted to defend ourselves better from the ever-present and impending threat of nuclear war. Whatever the case, we have always been curious as to what is out there, and we wanted to understand and build things bigger, better, stronger, faster.
The challenge in our present era is to figure out what will motivate us to explore uncharted scientific and technological territory this time.
In our present era, humanity has seen through a lot of scientific and technological change, much so that it is easy to take things for granted. Information has become easier to access; curiosities can be satisfied much easier. The pace of life has become easier and faster. But have we truly discovered everything there is to know about the world around us? At what price have our so-called progress and development come?
As part of humanity, we must never stop asking the important questions.
[Display image courtesy: womennewsnetwork.net]
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