International Women and Girls in Science Day
International Women and Girls in Science Day is upon us, and it’s interesting to think that we need a day to recognize the female interest in and contributions to science, but here we are. We absolutely need to celebrate it. And while I hope this is an inspirational piece of writing, I also believe that the time for well crafted words has passed and now, more than ever, is a time for action.
Women have always been involved in science, from the ancient wisdom of healers who used the natural world for observation, practice and teaching to the women who defied societal expectations to live a life of scientific inquiry, to the women now who are combining science and technology with entrepreneurship. We have also always been the subject of science, both with and without our consent. Women are still marginalized in scientific and technology focused communities, and not because of a lack of interest, but because of a longstanding history. Women in science still report their abilities being questioned, their advancement slower, and their exclusion from contributing important work, particularly if they choose to start a family. Most of the technology product design and start up industry is still dominated by men. Science and technology created for women is still predominantly created by men because of the slow changing nature of culture. These are serious issues that merit not only a day of observance and conversation, but a substantial effort towards change.
When we celebrate science and technology, we are also celebrating the history of innovation and invention, the art of design, the mathematics of precision, the collective community of the users. The lines between subjects are a myth, a construction by the conventional education system to compartmentalize learning. This separation of subjects was particularly harmful to girls, as it allowed for the bias that still assigns an aptitude for certain subjects according to gender. As an educator, I have taught in almost every kind of environment and my experience has taught me that education has a primary role in changing society. The more I came to understand how much harm it has done to see different subjects as isolated and autonomous, the more dedicated I became to changing the paradigm and advocating for interpreting science and technology in a personal way.
As I experimented more with centering the acquisition of skill around the specific needs of the learner, I was able to utilize our family’s considerable participation in the maker movement and open a workshop designed specifically for children and their families. We formed a non-profit and began a 5 year experiment in hacking the way STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and maths) education could be presented and individualized. The most essential value we embodied at Curiosity Hacked was that each of us could choose the role science and technology plays within our lives, and I actively recruited women as mentors with a variety of interests and skills so that girls had solid role models of women makers and boys did too. The foundation of our programs was that using science, technology, art, and design thinking not only created skilled makers, but children who embraced and mastered creativity, innovative thinking, resilience, resourcefulness, and networking. These are the kind of strengths that are invaluable in a quickly changing world. For girls, the experience often dramatically and positively changed their self image and what they thought themselves capable of. Science is interesting and valuable in its own right, independent of future occupations, and that the earlier girls are empowered to pursue their own interest in it, the more prepared they will be for a future that depends on their science and tech confidence.
I also saw mothers learn new concepts and skills that they had never been exposed to or did not think to/were intimidated to try and it transformed them, not just personally, but also in the way they parented and their increased support of science and technology initiatives. We can’t change the future for girls if we don’t hold the space in the present for adults to gain the knowledge and skills that the younger generation is fluent in. Adults need to understand the essential value of science and technology as more than electronics, academics, entertainment, and healthcare. Our society often focuses on the future of girls in STEM fields, but their enjoyment of it, and the education of the adults influencing their lives, right now in the present is just as crucial.
Whether or not science and technology is part of an educational trend through STEM/STEAM initiatives, women and girls have always engaged with their innate sense of curiosity. The idea that we need to encourage them to love science and technology is placing the burden on those who already bear the cultural conditioning of many generations. Girls and women already love science and technology. What needs to be encouraged is policy and cultural changes that support their interest and leave girls with no doubt that they belong and are respected in their chosen field. This is a privilege most men have experienced for thousands of years.
Framework that protects and supports women, like family leave, flexible work schedules, and affordable quality child care, creates a pathway for women to be able to return to their work instead of being forced to choose between their career and their family. Work culture that has no tolerance for discrimination or inequity holds the community responsible for creating a safe and supportive work environment. Well funded educational opportunities for girls to innovate and be mentored by women who believe in them build engaged learners who grow up to pay it forward. These are the things that create change quickly.
Just as important than all of the above, though, is the relationship we foster between girls and science from the very beginning. Read books on science and scientists, particularly female scientists. Cultivate an environment of slow science, where observation and appreciation become a sensory experience. Provide an abundance of ingredients and materials to experiment with. Build a relationship with technology that serves as a tool – not just for education but for enjoyment and for community building. Stop shaming children for asking questions, making messes, or for the interests they are passionate about. Examine your language for gender assumptions around science and technology. Stop telling your kids they are smart and start telling them they are capable, good problem solvers, or innovative. Stop telling kids they should go into science or technology just because they’ll get a great paying job, and encourage them to choose their work based on passions and strengths. Look for ways science and technology has changed lives and helped people, particularly for women and girls. Elevate the acquisition of science literacy in your home and in your community. Demand family friendly legislation from your elected officials. Elect more women. Donate to scientific studies led by women. Donate to Kickstarters in which women are designing new technology projects. Finally, when your girls are older, share this history and its bias with them so that they know what we celebrate every year.