The CataLyst: Guest Post from the Stemettes

For this post I thought it would be fun to lift an organisation that does wonderful work here in the UK; the Stemettes! Rather than writing about it myself, here’s a guest post from Jacquelyn, Managing Stemette, who wants to share with us what the Stemettes are all about. Enjoy!

I’m an Arts student (History and Spanish, Durham, specifically), yet somehow – after two years too many working as a management consultant for two and a half years – I’ve ended up supporting one of the biggest “Girls into STEM” organisations in the UK. It’s funny that I should feel myself worthy to help girls on their path to a career in STEM when all I have is an in-depth knowledge of 20th Century Russian society and an ability to talk all sorts of things in Spanish to all sorts of people. But here I am co-running a fast growth start-up STEM social enterprise – and I reckon I am just as qualified as anyone else. Because at the Stemettes, passion is what matters.

The Stemettes was launched in February 2013 by Anne-Marie Imafidon (youngest girl in the UK to get an A Level aged 11 and Masters from Oxford at 20, both in Computer Science). She attended a keynote at the Grace Hopper Celebration in the States where she found out the number of women working in technology, wasn’t just declining – it was in freefall. After some research in the UK (specifically the Kings College London ASPIRES Report) she realised the situation was the same, if not worse, over here.

Having leafed her way through reams and reams of reports and documenting the problem, Anne-Marie felt it was about time that someone a) proposed solutions, and b) actually set to carrying out those activities which made up the solution. It doesn’t seem like rocket science…not to us or to you, but it may as well have been – there were so few organisations or women tackling this problem with action it seemed bizarre. There was practically no one.

The Stemettes aims to inspire girls to pursue a career in STEM through meeting amazing women already working in STEM via a series of panels, hackathons and exhibitions. And this year we are starting a mentoring and webinar programme also. We work with schools and corporations such as Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Accenture (see our website for more sponsors). We aim to break the social norm by showing girls they are just as welcome in STEM as they are in any other sector in industry. We get them coding, building, designing, creating, thinking and exploring. Through one “hot,” hands-on interaction with the Stemettes, we have seen the stats that prove girls are more positive about pursuing a career in STEM.

Results aside (we can show you rows and rows, cells and cells of feedback data as evidence), we know that part of what makes the Stemettes so successful is it is FUN. We do not try and convey a political message – the girls realise there is a problem but this isn’t why they should go into it; they realise they can work in STEM because they can and it is a good career, not simply in the name of equality.

There is no political message in a complete novice coding up a website or creating a mobile app in a day from scratch – not one that I can see anyway. Stemette Supporters, Big Stemettes and Little Stemettes alike enjoy themselves at our events, and our Twitter feed is awash with 140 characters of testimonies from all types: children and adults, men, women and girls.

We know the Stemettes can succeed, and our ultimate goal is to up the number of women working in STEM from 13% (2013) to 30%. That’s a realistic goal we reckon, especially as not only are more organisations coming on the scene that are fighting the same fight as us, but because the Stemettes are scaling up – and fast! In our first year we worked with 700 girls through 9 different events, mainly in London.

This year we hope to work with at least 1000 girls and run 18 events, half of which will take place outside London. Our success and the results and feedback we receive baffles us on a daily basis – Anne-Marie always says “no one is more surprised by this than I am,” and I believe her. She started the Stemettes project as a New Year’s resolution for 2013 as a side project to her full time job in technology at a global investment bank. But as long as that wave of opportunity and good fortune is still there, we’re going to continue riding it.

For more information, please visit our website Stemettes.org and sign up to our mailing list. You can also tweet us @Stemettes or email us at Stemettes@gmail.com.

Please do check our event page as we run new events every month.

Jacquelyn & Anne-Marie
Managing & Head Stemette

The CataLyst: The Stereotype Threat

At certain points in my life when I meet new people, the question of what I do for a living eventually surfaces. “So what do you work with?” they ask, to which I reply – trying to sound as neutral and normal as I possibly can – “I’m a chemical engineer.” Most of the time I’m met by silence, followed  by a facial expression that’s trying to not look surprised, and then a casual “Oh really, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

I catch myself wanting to start a discussion at that point, asking people why they “wouldn’t have guessed that.” But then I remember why.

It’s the fact that things like this existed until very recently:

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And these kinds of stereotypes and generalisations are made every day, in a non-satirical way:

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Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of Lean In, explains Stereotype Threat with these words:

Stereotype threat means that the more we’re aware of a stereotype, the more we act in accordance with it,” Sandberg explains. “So, stereotypically we believe girls are not good at math. Therefore, girls don’t do well at math, and it self-perpetuates. If you ask a girl right before she takes a math test to check off ‘M’ or ‘F’ for male or female, she does worse on that test. The reason there aren’t more women in computer science is there aren’t enough women in computer science.

The truth is these stereotypes are ingrained everywhere, and everyone carries these biases around. When the founder of the popular Facebook site “I F***ing Love Science” revealed her gender (although she’d never actively tried to hide it), fans of the page were stunned. In an interview she said: 

“Commenters said they were very sort of surprised they had the same bias within themselves. They were saying ‘[I] didn’t realize that I had this, but I obviously do. I never dreamed that I was sexist in any way, I never dreamed that I had this bias, but it’s there. I thought you were a guy.”

And it’s not surprising really, when these stereotypes get perpetuated and replicated everywhere we look. Despite the fact that there are more female STEM-literate roles in films and on TV (like Natalie Portman’s physicist in Thor, and Sandra Bullock’s doctor/astronaut in Gravity), many shows play on the old biases. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory has typecast female scientists into the “weirdo” role and the only other female character is the normal non-scientist. I personally find the show funny and entertaining because I can see its satirical side, being “behind the scenes” myself, so to speak. But for people who are not in STEM, this might be interpreted as a true representation of what STEM communities are like.

A study conducted by Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington found that students who did not do computer science believed computer scientists to be intelligent but with poor social skills. They were also perceived as liking science fiction and spending hours playing video games. Some participants even went so far as to describe computer scientists as thin, pale (from being inside all the time), and having poor hygiene.

Participants were also asked to read articles claiming that computer scientist no longer fit those stereotypes, and another which claimed they do. The articles were identical with the exception of their opposing claims. While men were unaffected, women who read the article with non-stereotypical images were significantly more interested in majoring in computer science than women who read the article with gendered stereotypes.

The problem with these stereotypes have been outlined in several research papers, and even to those of us who study and work within STEM, these biases come so naturally. I frequently catch myself defaulting to male language (he, him, his) when speaking about work, research or people I don’t know. It’s a constant battle to undo years of being exposed to these stereotypes, and even though I know that we can’t all fit in to these narrow templates, it’s difficult to break away from an old habit.

One small change that might have a big impact is our spoken language . If you don’t know the gender, don’t assume it’s a man and maybe use “they” instead? These conscious choices that we make will eventually lead to a bigger change, and a different perception.

If you have any good examples of communities, websites or people who break these stereotypes, or just tips and tricks on how to stop enforcing stereotypes, please share them here. I’m sure we would all benefit from some new shades of STEM.

The CataLyst: The Myth About Maths

Last year the Institute For Fiscal Studies published a report stating that children who are good at maths at the age of 10 will go on to earn 7% more at 30 than an “otherwise identical” child. It’s worrying then, with the already existing salary gap, that girls are trailing behind boys in maths in many developed countries. The latest results from the OECD Pisa Test show that in most countries girls underperform boys in mathematics; among the highest-achieving students, the gender gap in favour of boys is even wider.

Nature vs. Nurture
But boys are not innately better at maths than girls right? For a long time, the performance gap in maths between boys and girls was explained using nature and biology. Boys were more logical, and girls more creative. Recently though, more and more research supports the nurture over nature argument. If this is true (which I think it is), it’s really scary that according to code.org, the cultural side is getting worse. The numbers are terrifying and fewer girls are doing maths, physics and computer subjects at school here in the UK.

Last year, the UK education minister Liz Truss, said the gender gap is a result of girls’ lack of confidence in themselves. This makes me think sometimes even the best role models cannot counteract the societal and cultural pressures faced by girls. There may be a clear link between confidence and performance, but despite the bleak figures there is hope.

Social Equality and Equality in STEM
If we look at the figures on a global scale, the maths gender gap in certain countries is almost non-existent. These are the countries that also happen to offer more equal opportunities and resources to men and women. The general correlation has been found that in more equitable societies, the STEM gender gap is significantly reduced. In countries like Iceland, Sweden and Norway the results from various tests show no difference in how girls and boys perform, whereas in countries like Turkey and even the UK, girls scored on average 23 and 14 points less than boys respectively.

I know that here in the UK, we like to think of ourselves as forward thinking, equal and progressive – and to a certain extent we are – but the numbers speak for themselves. Girls are not worse than boys at STEM subjects, but it’s difficult to be the first girl doing a Physics A-Level if none of your girlfriends are. It can’t be down to the individual alone to change the view of society. Although young girls all over the country and the world are already going against the trend, something needs to happen on a larger scale.

The way we view girls in media influences the way girls look at themselves.

We have to ask ourselves what can by done by government, locally in our communities, through schools and parenting, as well as on social media to change the culture and perceptions of girls in STEM. Only then will we be able to offer equal opportunities and give girls the chance to prove gender doesn’t matter.