Help our elementary school get gender balance in gifted math and science
March 28, 2016 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Today I had to have the uncomfortable discussion with my 5th grade daughter about "why there aren't more girls on the Science Bowl team." Apparently, there are 5 girls out of 16 competitively awarded spots. A couple of years ago, we had the exact same discussion about TAG math-- she wanted to drop out because she was the only girl in her group.

Back then, I talked to the school administration, and they moved her to a different TAG math group with a few more girls in it. And I have been fighting the "no, you're not bad at math. Girls are not bad at math" fight ever since. I am now pretty angry at myself for not pushing the issue of gender disparity then.

So today? Today I am angry enough to call up the school and ask them point blank to explain the gender imbalance in their science and math performance/opportunities for boys and girls. But rather than going in full of rage, I want to engage with the school on how to increase girls' engagement in math and science. I know for a fact that there are other bright, competent girls interested in math and science in her class. Statistically speaking, the TAG Math and Science Teams should be about 50-50 girls and boys. The fact that my 10 year old daughter now thinks that boys are better at math and science (and now is less enthusiastic about math as a result) is damaging her future educational and employment opportunities.

So. Teachers and STEM advocates of MeFi: tell me how to do this productively. I want to go in with research-based suggestions on bringing more girls into math and science programs, but I don't know where to start.

Here's what I think:
- in general, her school is great on science! That's one reason she loves it and is good at it. But for my bright science-loving girl, the existence of advanced science and math opportunities is turning out to be a net negative rather than net positive, because the message she's taking home from it is "girls don't do math and science as well as boys."
- I suspect that part of the imbalance is caused by how the advanced math and science groups are vetted (is basing science teams on written tests appropriate in elementary school? That seems like it would miss a lot of smart science-interested kids with different Gardner multiple intelligences).
- If there isn't any give about the TAG and science teams, could the school offer other types of science and math enrichment that they work harder to balance across gender (race, socioeconomic diversity, learning styles, etc)? Any suggestions for how to set up something like that? Ideas on productive parent involvement, if that would help it happen?
- What types of science and math activities are particularly engaging to a wider range of students? (The science team seems to be fairly "Jeopardy for kids, with science"-- I wonder whether projects or clubs would draw-and permit- more girls?)
- What else should I know? What should I be asking of the school administration, the teachers, and other parents?

We do a lot of science and math exploration at home, so it's less that I'm worried that she won't get math and science if she doesn't get it at school. (I suspect that's part of why she's been persistent enough to keep at it in school, even as one of the few girls.) It's that school is making it harder to keep her engaged in math and science, rather than easier.
posted by instamatic to Education (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure that the spots are only awarded by this test, and not by a combination of test/teacher recommendation, or simply by testing above a certain level and interest/availability to participate on this team?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:31 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The TAG program is definitely a combination of factors, including parent and teacher recommendations and grades. I'm less certain of the science teams (they were originally intended to be test-based, but may have also involved other factors after the fact). It kind of doesn't matter-- no matter how the groups have been formed, the fact that they are so statistically out of whack with respect to gender parity indicates that there is some kind of bias at work, and whether or not the school is the cause of that bias, I think they are morally obligated to work to counter it.

So I'm less concerned by the specific mechanism that is used to create the groups, and more interested in how to get the girls at the school more involved in math and science enrichment. And also, make sure that the message that they're absorbing isn't "girls are not as good in math and science as boys are." (Those are two interrelated issues, but they're not identical.)
posted by instamatic at 3:43 PM on March 28, 2016

I don't think it's worth it to try to change the school- your daughter's in 5th grade and it's nearly April- won't she be in a new school next year?

I think you should continue what you're doing- reinforce to her that girls are good at science and math. Tell her she is very smart and works hard, and that she'll learn even more in her advanced classes and Science Bowl. Unfortunately, there IS a gender imbalance in STEM in schools and in the real world. I think changing the school might just delay the inevitable, and teaching her confidence and resilience starting now will help her a lot. Here's an article I read a little while back that I think might help.

I thought the part about emphasizing learning as effort-based (you tried hard) vs. attribute-based (you ARE smart) helps children become resilient learners, and makes them more likely to try difficult things.

FWIW, I think you're right to be concerned and it sounds like you're willing to do all you can to help her feel comfortable. There's just no easy solution.
posted by serenity_now at 3:48 PM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Are there female science teachers involved?

Could there be a visiting speaker program (parent scientists or local scientists come in to talk about their work or run fun demos), with strict 50/50 ratio of speakers?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:50 PM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

A few thoughts -
for the school
- Teachers should be encouraged to reach out to promising students who might not see themselves as that type of activity and encourage them to try out for these activities. There is great power in having a teacher say "I know you would be good at this. I believe in you. Why not give it a try"
- Look at adding in a more less competitive less "quick answer" and more cooperative, problem based enrichment activities. My personal favorite is Odyssey of the Mind or Destination Imagination [basically same idea - problems that encourage creativity and problem solving by kids (not the adults!) but one branched off from the other other] Plus team choose from a range of problem some of which have major engineering components and some of which are more art and drama focused so it could enrich a larger % of students.

for you
Work on team building activities and opportunities for socialization among the kids on the Science Bowl teams. If your daughter feels she has friends on the team, she will enjoy it much more. You could do something where you invite a few team mates that she likes (maybe all girls, maybe mixed) to practice or to go out to eat afterward. You can also talk to the coach about team building among all the members so it feels more inclusive for everyone.
posted by metahawk at 4:25 PM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Rather than being combative, you might present yourself at this level or the next (if your child is moving into middle school next year) as an advocate for gender equity across school based STEM activities.
Push for gender equity in the faculty/committees that choose the participants, push for equity in participation (50/50 ratios on teams), and gather parents who agree with you to help you.

Gender equity doesn't have to mean equality, it simply means equal opportunity. Insist on gender neutral language so as not to discourage girls, and recruit your daughter's friends who might be interested in participating.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:28 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is an all-girls' school an option? The couple in my community are highly regarded and the girls are fierce! It may be an idea...rather than battle the bullshit, excise it altogether.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 4:32 PM on March 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Are you sure it's the case that the school has *offered* these opportunities to fewer girls than boys? It's possible that more boys than girls are interested in participating. I think you can't address this without figuring out what the cause is.

I dropped out of Mathcounts in middle school after my best friend did, because I would have been the single remaining girl. I was good at math but didn't particularly enjoy it, so with the social aspect no longer there for me, it just wasn't worth it anymore. No one from the school actively did anything sexist to dissuade girls from participating, but neither did anyone seemingly care when all the girls dropped out (just us two out of say 8 or 10 students total).

Perhaps there could be a way of forming girls-only groups, so that participants don't have to feel weird about being into an activity they suspect is not gender normative? I feel like some people will hate that suggestion and deem it in itself sexist, but *realistically* preteen girls tend to care a lot about fitting in and about being seen as feminine. If they are one of many girls in a group, they may be less likely to question how OK they are than if they are one of 5 in 16.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 4:44 PM on March 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Mod note: Couple of comments deleted. Suggesting ways this might not be a problem isn't really an answer to the question -- OP is looking for ways to help get more girls involved.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 4:59 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

You need to make sure you do not tell the school they have a moral imperative, or even imply it. This will win you enemies and alienate people. A much better approach is "I just have so much enthusiasm for these topics and my child so loves them and I would love to see more enrichment in these areas! I would be happy to help and serve as a resource person for the school!"

Girls often prefer cooperative activities rather than competitive. Also, "STEM is fun" is generally a better means to sell kids on it than "you have just as much right as the boys" or similar framing.

I am a bit out of the loop, but could recommend some TAG resources generally and some (adult) "math is fun" resources if you memail me and give me a little time to pull some things together. I am a mathy girl and was fortunate to attend a high school where one of the advanced science teachers was a woman with a doctorate who also taught college. There were a lot of girls in her chemistry and physics classes and there was no implied "girls cannot do this" type stuff.

I would research what kind of faculty and staff are available. I would start listing possible local women role models that might be willing to get involved. I would look for best practices that have a track record of success and try to incorporate those into programs.

The competitive stuff is not just more hostile to girls, it is more hostile to all kinds of subcultures. Finding programs to model stuff after that is more focused on sharing a fun time while learning will generally be more inclusive.
posted by Michele in California at 5:06 PM on March 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

File a complaint against the school with the Office of Civil Rights of the DoE under Title IX.

No, seriously. Why bother asking the school to explain themselves and just deal with a bunch of defensive crap, and why should you be doing their work for them? File a complaint with the Department of Education and make them explain to the federal agencies why their TAG programs aren't adequately enrolling girls in STEM activities. They don't even have to know that you filed the complaint. It may go nowhere -- OCR is pretty overloaded -- but it'll put an official eye on them, and sometimes that's all it takes to get people to straighten up their acts.

I get really pissed off by stuff like this because it isn't hard to make programs interesting to girls -- you just invite girls to attend and you keep boys from saying mean things to them*. Understanding the causes of why girls don't enroll in these programs isn't mysterious. Girls are being, in some way, disinvited from the programs. Middle school *is* where a lot of this happens -- and like mysterious_stranger I agree that it's because there's some weird gender coding about science and math that young boys and girls are REALLY good at picking up on but that teachers don't really pay attention to.

- Do they have any women science teachers?
- Do they *try* to encourage girls to be active in the science and math activities? Do they have a formal plan for outreach?
- Can I just come to your school and get a lot of girls to play with bugs though? We (the graduate students in my program) go do outreach at elementary schools and girls always love coming to see the bugs that we brought, and it's easy to engage them in thinking about why bugs have the kinds of body parts they do, etc.
- On that note, do you have a University near by, that might have a Women in Science chapter? They might have some ready-made "here's how you get girls *back* into science" or even just be willing to come and be female role models. If the school doesn't have enough women science and math teachers, that could really help.

Ugh! So mad! I almost didn't become a scientist and that would have been an INCREDIBLE shame!

(I fought a bunch of bullshit sexism in high school as one of the only girls on the trivia bowl team, the only girl on computer club, the only girl in chess club, the only girl in... I mean, one boy suggested once when we were selecting new officers that I could be elected "The Computer Club Whore." I worry a lot about girls being exposed to that and not even knowing that they should say something about it. But this isn't about me.)
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:26 PM on March 28, 2016 [30 favorites]

Oh and Google's Made With Code is pretty great at gender-coding programming to be girly, and while I kinda hate that that is a thing, it is a thing. And Made With Code is cute!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:27 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Most of the educators I've worked with would agree with you wholeheartedly that we should find ways to get more girls into STEM-related activities and careers. It's incredibly frustrating when these implicit biases we all experience impact our students, who deserve all sorts of amazing opportunities without internalizing things about themselves based on their gender (or race, or zip code, or religion, etc etc). My work at schools has taught me that it's not that we don't want to make these changes happen - we just don't have resources we need. I think the best way to enact real change is to presume positive intentions on the school's part and find ways to partner with them, rather than fight them.

Stuff you can do: Find a school staff member who can help. Talk to the administrators and see what resources they could provide, and which they need help getting access to. Talk to the PTA about what resources they have and see how they can help. Reach out to local science museums, universities, etc and see what groups exist who can bring in speakers or host field trips. You don't need to create a group that's evenly boys/girls; there are lots of successful Girls in STEM groups that exist that sounds pretty awesome.
posted by violetish at 5:33 PM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

This sounds really frustrating! I know where you're coming from, and it absolutely sucks. As a teacher, I can say there are many things you can do as a parent. However, I'd start by approaching the administration with a solution: I'd offer to sponsor a STEM/STEAM club for girls. You can recruit within your daughter's school or work with parents throughout the district. I'd make it open to all and encourage everyone to come; make flyers in English and Spanish (and/or whatever other languages are spoken at your school), and have your daughter invite her friends. They may not think they're interested in STEM yet but will likely become excited and engaged with a good group, which is exactly the point of what you're doing! You could meet once a week or biweekly after school, and do experiments, have guest speakers, get high school mentors, go on field trips, and more. Of course, the problem is societal and sexism deeply ingrained but it's a start with good results, I am sure!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:16 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, I don't know where you are located but I can say that there are many girls taking Advanced Placement science classes and holding leadership roles in STEM-related clubs at my high school. In fact, I believe there are likely more girls than boys in these classes and positions, although the math leagues may still be majority male.

I'd start by talking to the science and math department chairs at your local middle and high school schools, and see what their situation is like and what they have to offer or recommend to you as the parent of a 10-year-old. As a high school teacher of a world language, I'm always looking for opportunities for my high schoolers to help teach and mentor younger students. We do outreach programs but I'd also be glad to set something up for individuals or a small group. Honor societies requires members to perform a certain number of community service hours, and some of those hours could be helping your daughter and her peers!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:21 PM on March 28, 2016

It has absolutely been my experience that girls are far more likely than boys to choose their activities and classes with social considerations in mind. I've seen it from 3rd graders to college students. I think having some sort of STEM club for girls would help them connect with other girls interested in science, and that would likely carry over to other coed extracurriculars.

Making sure that the school clubs also incorporate activities that are not competitions would also make a big difference, I think. Plenty of kids would love the material but hate the pressure of a competitive atmosphere.
posted by ktkt at 8:08 PM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can you volunteer to be the coach of an all girl's team? I think you'll get further if you can offer a constructive solution to a small, well-defined problem rather than calling the school up and essentially saying, "please, in addition to your day job, dismantle the workings of the patriarchy."
posted by MsMolly at 9:35 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are there female science teachers involved?

Could there be a visiting speaker program (parent scientists or local scientists come in to talk about their work or run fun demos), with strict 50/50 ratio of speakers?

Building on from this, maybe the older girls who are in the programs currently might be given an opportunity to speak to some of the younger girls in the school, to get them excited about trying to get into the programs when it's their turn. And maybe they could have opportunities to follow up with them in a sort of mentorship role.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:07 PM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, both the TAG math and the main science teacher are female. The reason I'm researching how to encourage girls in STEM today is that the first time this came up, a couple of years ago, I did some of the more obvious stuff-- talked to the school and teachers about my concerns, helped my daughter find a spot in a more girl-heavy TAG math group (the school's response at the time was, "it's just a fluke that she happened to be the only girl in her group, no problem, we'll move her to the other group that has a few more girls in it!"), doubled-down on creating science opportunities at home, and volunteered doing STEM at her school.

But after a couple of years of fighting the "no, girls are not bad at math, just because it feels challenging to you and there aren't many girls in your class, [insert more Carol Dweck-inspired process-oriented-learning-philosophy here]" battle, to suddenly find myself in the middle of "wow, I'm sorry that there are only boys on your science bowl team, but no, I actually don't think it's just because they are all better at science" was sort of the last straw.

Here's the thing: my kid isn't a child genius at math and science. She's bright and curious, and spends a fair amount of time at home coming up with math, science and programming projects to mess around with, and I think that's great. Her school is great at the type of science and math that really engage her and make her think. Her school is a good school. And yet, this "good" school, with female math and science teachers, who set up 50-50 gender distribution in their Hour of Code parent volunteers, still are raising a generation of girls who, because they see boys disproportionally represented in the special math and science programs, are internalizing "girls must not be as good at this." And that is where the problem is. I don't actually care (much) whether my daughter starts middle school in the math track that puts her into the algebra-geometry-trig-calculus path. I care a lot if she decides she "isn't good at math and science" because of the gender disparity in gifted math and science enrichment in elementary school.

Here's the thing: if you don't believe that boys are naturally better at math than girls are, then you should be concerned if TAG math is disproportionally male. The same for science. Her school (because it's a good school!) recognizes this type of issue in teaching reading to ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students. It provides enrichment opportunities in the reading programs that encourage ESOL students to engage with reading, and their confidence and reading ability grow by leaps and bounds. I think they can (and would probably like to) create similar opportunities for girls in STEM. (And not just girls! ESOL students! Special ed students! Introverts! Anyone who isn't as well served by the programs as they stand today.)

I think the suggestions up-thread about creating collaborative opportunities to experience science are probably key. More female role models probably can't hurt either, though the social factor ("why aren't there more girls in science bowl?") seems to vastly outweigh adult role models. I found a really good paper on engaging girls in STEM (SLPDF) , which seems to cover the kind of advice I'm hoping for:

- emphasize collaboration, keep the activities fun and engaging
- understand the distinction between outperforming in gating activities (e.g., tests) and performing well in STEM activities/education
- using an existing curriculum and training mentors/teachers is more effective than creating a program from scratch
- and finally, sadly, maybe I should forget about working through this via the school and look for a good STEM-focused girl scout troop. (FWIW, my younger daughter is in 2nd grade at this school, so I am motivated to improve things in elementary rather than waiting it out until middle school.)

The reason I care about this is that I am probably alternate-universe Made of Star Stuff, and I powered through years and years of being "the only girl in ..." until finally I left my PhD program in the hard sciences because I finally internalized "maybe the reason I am totally lost in this lecture on the three body problem in celestial mechanics is because my (girl) brain doesn't have the spatial reasoning I need for it," when honest-to-god I was probably just ground down by the years of perfectly supportive professors...and almost complete lack of other female students in my field (not to mention the fact that it was, objectively speaking, just f*cking hard). I get this on a gut level, and I don't want that for my daughters.
posted by instamatic at 9:52 AM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you talked to your daughter about the feminist/systematic side of it? "Look at how you're feeling, like being the only girl means there's something wrong with you being involved. If you could feel this way, do you think other girls might feel this way too? It's more comfortable for boys but it's not because they are inherently any better, just more comfortable/encouraged." If she's bought into the programs as an actual metric of skill, it might be weighing on her a lot harder in terms of self-doubt.

Me, I got through a physics degree and being the only girl on my science bowl team in HS and so on with sheer contrariness. That jerk thinks girls are bad at math? I can be better at math than *him*, and I'll prove it... But if I'd been inclined to believe other people were objective judges, I would have had a hard time of it.
posted by Lady Li at 12:40 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The school is falling down on the job if their STEM activities are losing girls as the students progress through the grades. Sadly, this is average, so the school administration might think that they aren't part of the problem, which can be an obstacle to getting them to do anything about it. I'm not an expert on the most strategic ways to bring up this or related problems as a parent (my mother could say a lot on that topic; I can only speak to how to do self-advocacy as a student); but having attended many different schools with widely varying approaches, and having been active in efforts to interest and retain girls and women in STEM as an adult, things that schools need to do include:

* Training for staff (teachers and administrators) on gender bias in STEM education - knowing where it comes from and how to recognize it in themselves, in colleagues, and in students; and, importantly, also being introduced to attitudes and pedagogical strategies to counteract the biases that we all develop to at least some extent due to living in a sexist society.

* Sufficient resources and training for female teachers in mathematics - the research on gendered components of math anxiety is quite interesting and shows that math anxiety in female teachers has an outsided influence on the development of math anxiety in female students. So ensuring that female teachers have the time and other resources to be confident and proficient in their own math skills can also be an efficient investment of resources.

* Training for staff on anti-bullying strategies - the schools that I have seen that are the best at girls' participation in STEM activities are also the best overall at creating healthy and supportive classroom and school communities. They talk to kids explicitly about communication, how to recognize and healthily manage their own emotions, developing empathy for others, etc; and they follow up on that with school policies that expect respectful behavior between students (and staff), that encourage teachers to pay attention to the social interactions between their pupils (both in the classroom and in non-classroom areas of the school) as a component of creating a supportive learning environment at the school, and that enable teachers to enact those stated policies.

* Non-competitive STEM engagement activities as well as competitive activities.

* Directly inviting and encouraging girls' participation in STEM activities, eg. requiring that the teachers or staff organizing the Science Bowl team identify girls who might potentially be good for the team and directly invite them and encourage them to participate - maybe this also includes having alternate pathways for selection for the team beyond writing a competitive test, but even without that, having a teacher tell a girl, "I think you would be good at this and your participation could really help our team", as well as knowing that other girls are taking the test to try out for the team, goes a long way toward counteracting the effects of stereotype threat that are likely skewing the try-out test results otherwise.

As well, explicitly giving girls the tools to analyze their experiences from a feminist perspective helps innoculate them somewhat. It sounds like you're already doing this with your daughter, so the following is more to support or encourage you in knowing that what you're doing is both important and useful.

I found that reading biographies of women in science that named the sexism they faced, along with more general stuff (I particularly remember reading the book "Reviving Ophelia" around the time that I started high school, and that impacting my approach to high school social dynamics in a positive way) about gender equity, gender dynamics, and sexism were all helpful to me. I was raised on feminism, attended my first protest (a Take Back the Night march) around the age of seven, and have always had a bit of a stubborn or independent streak and a strong sense of injustice; different girls might find reading about the struggles that women like Marie Curie went through scary rather than inspiring, and might find different material on the topic of gender equity more useful, of course. (In particular, holding the personality trait of stubborn nonconformity shouldn't have to be a requirement for participation or success in STEM areas as a girl or woman.)

Most of the successful programs for retaining girls in STEM fields that I've seen and been involved with do include an explicit gender equity component, however. Girls, despite parents' best intentions, get trained to minimize sexist behavior that they are on the receiving end of, and to treat every incident as an individual case. Recognizing and naming the patterns can be really powerful. For example, in a math camp for high school girls that I worked with, one year I had the participants code a simulation of a girl interacting with parents, teachers, and friends. It was a very simplistic simulation: the participants could set four parameters for each category of interaction: in each of english and math, how positive or negative each type of interaction was to the simulated girl's enjoyment of, and confidence in her abilities in the subject. Our camp participants chose what they thought were reasonable parameters based on their own experiences, then started the simulation. All of their girls' confidence in and enjoyment of math tanked. The participants in the camp found that eye-opening, because they were used to minimizing the sexism they encountered in their lives. We had an interesting discussion about that (as well as about assumptions in modeling/simulating real life). Another example: in a different year, same camp, several participants came from the same school. When initially asked, they didn't think there was any structural or significant sexism in their school. There was this one thing; yeah, and there was this other thing; oh yeah, and this; etc. Once they started listing their experiences, and discussing with each other to verify that they all had the experiences in common, they were able to see that there was a pattern. Then they started getting annoyed or angry at the people acting in sexist ways instead of feeling ashamed, embarrased, or other negative emotions about themselves. In both of those examples, girls were already at least kind of interested in math initially, but expressed a more confident feeling that they belonged in math, that it was something they could and should do and that they were good at (less minimizing of their own successes with math) after participating in the camp.
posted by eviemath at 7:17 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Reading through these responses helped me organize my thoughts and have a productive conversation with the science and math teachers. I realized that I have no quibbles whatsoever with the STEM education at the school. I think it's really amazing, and when I see the hands-on simple machines on the playground/gardening/plotting 3-D topographical maps with string outside/chemistry-while-cooking/geology-with-Starburst-candy projects they do, I feel super lucky to have my kids at this school. So I was able to zero in on my real issue, which wasn't how/whether my daughters were learning STEM (definitely!), but how they felt about it (isolated and less-than-awesome because:girls). We haven't come up with a magical solution yet, but the teachers are thinking about how they can change up some of the framing and context (without changing the awesome projects they're already doing) to encourage a broader range of students to feel comfortable with the optional enrichment opportunities. For example, maybe letting all interested students participate in the science competition, rather than limiting participation to the top performers.
In the meantime, my super-competitive daughter is spending hours at home studying science facts, and seems to have adjusted fine to being the only girl on her team. #inittowinit
posted by instamatic at 8:32 PM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

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