At the recent Interaction Eleven conference in Boulder CO, Cheryl Platz gave an excellent presentation on ways to encourage young girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in school. Cheryl’s talk highlighted the importance of this, as the number of young women so choosing has dropped dramatically since the early 1980s, and the field needs all of the bright contributors it can recruit, regardless of gender.
I agree wholeheartedly with Cheryl’s remarks, and I support her recommendations without reservation. There is indeed some sort of barrier that discourages young women from getting into the technical professions, and it is well worth tearing it down.
But something about the presentation bothered me. After listening awhile, I realized that I was feeling the “framing effect”, a well-known cognitive bias, wherein the way a question is worded affects the way people answer it. Cheryl’s insistence that girls could enjoy studying math and science sounds right to me, but the way her argument was framed seemed to blame the girls for the shortfall.
While I earnestly support the idea that more girls should study math and science, I believe that the problem instead belongs to employers, educators, and the institutions they lead. I believe that the STEM disciplines would have more success with young women if they developed a stronger feminine side.
Rather than simply “boys” versus “girls”, I prefer to think of personal inclinations in terms of one’s “feminine side” and “masculine side”. I believe that all men and all women possess both sides in varying degrees. I am proud of my strong feminine side, and I know many women whose strong masculine side makes them tough as nails.
What’s more, there are many men and boys who are more comfortable in the soft studies and who eschew the harder sciences. There are many young men who struggle with math, but who could make excellent contributions to the fields of software development, technical literature, interaction design, visual design, cognitive and behavioral studies, and other closely related fields (for example, that would describe me).
I believe that girls reject math and science not because they are too girly, but because the purveyors of STEM education are too manly, or more accurately, too pointless and boring from the feminine point of view.
There are very real differences between the sexes, and these appear at a young age in all children. There is a large and growing body of literature in the fields of evolutionary and cognitive psychology that prove and illustrate these different ways the sexes behave in similar situations.
Women are quite capable of high achievement in STEM subjects, but they are disinterested because their motivations are different. Platz asserted that while men are content to learn math or science for the subject’s own sake, women see those disciplines merely as a means for achieving broader human goals. Those goals are what motivate the feminine approach, and when the subjects are taught in isolation, they often lose interest.
What’s more, I don’t believe that the hard sciences discourage only girls; I believe that they also discourage those with a well-developed feminine personality.
This is admittedly a semantic quibble, but the framing effect is a very real thing, and the language we use powerfully influences our decisions. And when the feminine side is strongly influenced to stay away from science and technology, our entire society suffers. A solely masculine discipline is a weak and one-sided discipline.
One could make a strong argument that the feelings of frustration and failure people get from using technology were caused by our purely masculine approach to software design. Almost all of our digital artifacts are designed and built by men (and a few women with strong masculine sides) inside organizations led by the same, who learned their discipline from masculine teachers within masculine institutions using curricula and methods that embody strong masculine principles.
Bringing stronger feminine values and more feminine ways of thinking to science and technology will bring a larger, more human scale view to our disciplines. The feminine side approaches problems and group dynamics in a way that is very different from the masculine way. When some minor catastrophe occurs at work or play, I have seen groups of men standing around demanding “Who did this?” and “Who’s going to fix this?” When that same catastrophe occurs amid a group of women, they ask “Did I cause this?” and “What can I do to fix this?” This positive, supportive attitude of women transforms the whole sense of teamwork and accomplishment.
It’s certainly possible to go too far, as groups of only women can be as biased and problematic as groups of only men. By far, the strongest and most effective teams are the ones composed of both men and women, with strong masculine and feminine sides. The whole nature of the group changes for the better with mixed gender teams. When there are at least two members of each sex in a group, the dynamics improve dramatically. A recent study gives some empirical credence to my personal observations.
Unfortunately, almost the entire spectrum of education in computer and software subjects is taught in glacial isolation from any practical application that improves people’s lives. The masculine side says “Computers are great because they can do anything!” while the feminine side says “I’d be very interested in computers if you could just tell me one useful thing they can do!”
I believe that the greatest burden of responsibility for bringing women into STEM education lies with the academic establishment. Young girls know who they are and what they want just as clearly as young boys do. As Cheryl noted in her talk, women are capable and willing of engaging with technology if it gives them command of something relevant in their lives. When educators connect their disciplines to the larger world, girls will be the first to see it, value it, and join up.
Many practitioners today seek redemption in a deeper understanding of the technical tools we use to build software. But that is such a masculine interpretation of the problem. Rather, I believe that a more worthwhile wellspring lies in understanding how human beings think and behave and what motivates their actions. That is, if the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math were to develop a stronger feminine side we’d not only see a lot more girls entering our fields, but our fields would be much better for it.