Including Girls in STEM Outreach

From my recent experience at the Gender Summit, years of science outreach, and discussions with colleagues on how to most effectively *do* outreach, I decided I should offer my two-cents on including girls in STEM outreach, particularly in outreach that is proclaimed and designed to “reach everyone”. Recognizing the need for diversity along all fronts (not just gender) has spurred these thoughts, and many of the suggestions come from observations of best (and worst) practices I have observed.

1. Remember girls are there: This means calling girls over to the table as you do boys, and ask them the same questions. This means not asking a girl if she’s having a good time at the event, but rather asking what she is doing, building, etc.– as you would boys. And if you notice a parent allowing a son, but not a daughter, to engage in the STEM activity, invite the parent with “Would your kids like to check this out?” and encourage parents to respond. Often times, bias/reasoning (and lack thereof) is subconscious, and at particularly crowded tables, the most eager kids (aka, the ones shoving the others out of the way to engage) get the space, and more reserved counterparts lose out.

2. Step in when you notice ‘bad’ behavior. Recently, I was conducting outreach at a local elementary school using Lego cars to demonstrate evolution. I was struck by how many times, as all of these children were racing cars down the track, that boys cut in line in front of girls, and that the girls were reprimanded if they did not wait in line, even when they attempted to take their rightful turn. If you see gender expectations holding a student back from engaging in an activity, help the child out as a parent or volunteer by imposing some authority. Saying something like, “I think you should let those waiting in line go” or “It’s his/her turn now” can go a long way to getting children to engage.

3. Design and promote gender-neutral activities. If you’ve got the ability, try to design outreach activities that will appeal equally across genders. Remember that even if it should appeal to everyone, that you’re still fighting society’s gender norms, and it may be harder to get females to engage in certain activities, as some young girls are ‘taught’ to believe that STEM is for boys (Not at all true, but that’s what you’re often against!). Try anyway!

If you’re designing cars, don’t assume it’s a boy thing, or  that the chemistry of making lipgloss a purely girl thing; this means when making advertisements or taking photos (with permission!) of the event, you include both boys and girls. Promote activities as gender-neutrally as you can, even if something does appear to conform to societal expectations of one gender.

4. Know your limits, and try a host of approaches. Not every activity is going to catch every audience member, so often, one-size-fits-all is really one-size-fits-most, or even one-size-fits-a lot. I was recently a bit upset by a post that attacked a colleague of mine encouraging science outreach through Reddit. He was questioned for promoting Reddit as a good tool because it lacks high female participation. Despite my colleague admittedly displaying this disparity in a graph and arguing for reaching an aggregate number of individuals, I am somewhat amused that he was not attacked for promoting outreach that requires internet access, and home internet access at that (as Reddit is often blocked on school systems). Internet is a luxury not available to all (…yet!). Thus, internet-based outreach doesn’t reach everyone, either. An individual’s geographic location, age, gender, and a host of other variables define their identity and can help shape whether or not they choose science. The lesson from this isn’t to stop trying to reach others because you can’t grab everyone, but to vary your activities so that the inherent limitations of each activity don’t repeatedly exclude the same groups of people.

5. Be yourself. This comes from the heart, and you may disagree, but here it goes: If you’re a woman in science, be you, and don’t go overboard to appear as a ‘girly’ role model. I once got the comment that I was the only female in science a HS class had had in their speaker series, and that wearing my pink ‘This is what a Scientist looks like’ shirt was great because it pointed out to the young women that I didn’t ‘need to be butch to be in science’. All I did was wear a pink T-shirt, so what was butch, really? Anyway… The comment was probably not the best, but the next time I visited the class, so concerned that I was the only female this class would see again this year, I wore a dress. Let me say that again. *I* wore a dress. I don’t normally (read: never) do that, but I wanted to include even the girliest girl in my ‘visual’ of what a female scientist is or could be. I played into the stereotype myself, and I somewhat regret it. It was a learning experience, however, on how much we let image control the ‘shoulds’ of our lives. I honestly encourage you to be you, and if you’re an ex-Rugger and proud, be it. That’s still a female, and you’re still a scientist.

In the process of searching for images/videos showing just what we’re fighting in terms of ‘images’, I found a toy worth getting; I’m totally going to stockpile GoldieBlox! Watch the videos and read more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/goldieblox-beastie-boys-girls-music-video-_n_4296908.html & here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyTQDX-ItiM

Thoughts? Concerns? Things to add? Let me know!

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