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Both of my children love science, and my wife and I have encouraged this in our children.

However, at a recent school activity fair the representative for a science oriented group (robotics if I remember correctly) spoke to and gave an activity to my son but not my daughter, though my daughter was in the target age range for the group and my son was not.

We "compensated" for the "gimme" they gave my son by getting my daughter a similar experiment kit.

We didn't directly address the representative at the booth, but later emailed the group leader about this. Should we have said something on the spot? What else have people done to overcome anti-STEM bias?

  • Please don't use comments for extended discussion or answers. Take discussion to Parenting Chat. – Karl Bielefeldt Apr 14 '15 at 14:51
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    Could you provide a little more context for the event that sparked this question? For example, did your two children both approach the representative, but he/she only spoke to your son? Did your daughter try to get involved, but was ignored? What exactly happened? – Jack M Apr 14 '15 at 15:51
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    Your question shows up fifth in Google results for "stem bias" and first for "anti stem bias". Would you mind explaining (in the question) what those phrases mean for those that are unfamiliar? – Rainbolt Apr 14 '15 at 20:17
  • I second Rainbolt's recommendation about defining "STEM". – Almo Apr 14 '15 at 20:28
  • STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Anti-STEM bias is where girls are discouraged from participating in STEM subjects from an early age. – COL Wotohice Apr 14 '15 at 22:05
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First, good on you guys for recognizing this and addressing it both with your daughter and the group that held the event. It's not always easy to speak up in a group setting when this happens RIGHT THEN; although I'm a pretty much "in the brain, out the mouth" kind of person, I fully advocate taking the time to make the CORRECT response, not just any response.

However, now that you've run across it in the wild, use this opportunity to both decide how you would like to respond next time, as well as role-play a response or three with your kids. (I mention both because I fully support getting your son involved in this too; my son certainly loves the opportunity to stick up for his sister.) How would THEY respond in the future? How would they like you to respond?

Personally, we work on anti-STEM bias one person at a time. My daughter (nearly 7) has a t-shirt from the Pi day phenomenon that uses math equations to make a pi joke. She wears that, and will happily explain what each symbol means to anyone who takes an interest in the shirt. Just hearing a first grader talking about imaginary numbers and exponents will shut down a lot of the doubters. She also is fluent in all things geek (well, that are appropriate), and we discuss all sorts of science-y things in our day-to-day existence. (Night before last it was time travel, chaos theory, and the multiverse; this theory was started when we were talking about characters in Dr. Who that are quantum-locked.) Since this is a lot of the talk around our house, it becomes a lot of the talk when we are out, and she becomes a sort of geek ambassador for people in the vicinity.

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    We did talk to the kids about it afterwards, but didn't talk about how they would/should respond, that's a good idea. – COL Wotohice Apr 13 '15 at 15:21
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    +1. Encouraging a girl in STEMs isn't just about getting her interested in the world of math and science, it's teaching her how to cope with being ignored by STEM teachers, encouraged to pursue a more "appropriate" field of study, and so many other manifestations of bias (both conscious and not)... equip her for that struggle early :) – Acire Apr 13 '15 at 17:21
  • @Erica, your point about equipping girls to handle bias should get all the stars. – Valkyrie Apr 13 '15 at 17:49
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    @Erica If you over-equip her to battle against being ignored by STEM teachers she will get the impression that as a female she's simply less equipped than males for STEM fields. These teachers who "will ignore" her in the future may have reasons beyond gender motivating it. Equip her to be vocal, equip her to get as much attention from her teachers as she wants/needs. Telling someone "it will be hard for you because you are a girl" is a negative message while "show them you are better" is a positive one. – Gorchestopher H Apr 14 '15 at 12:47
  • @GorchestopherH I agree that the goal should be awareness, not fearmongering. I've literally never used "when you're discriminated against" with my daughter, always "if" -- be prepared, but not paranoid :) – Acire Apr 14 '15 at 14:58
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Diffuse these situations without adding to a perceived disparity. A simple comment to the tune of "oh, my daughter is at the right age, not my son" would probably have been the best bet. Treat these situations as simple oversights, don't teach your daughter that she will be prejudice against or that she will need to be catered to.

You have encountered something that will eventually fade into the background. The person at the booth made some kind of mistake, either in determining which of your children was more interested, at the correct age, whomever was more vocal, enrollment demographics, etc. It's also possible that the booth operator was prejudice against your daughter.

Once she is in highschool she will be bombarded with STEM organizations and fields of study fighting to win her. If you son gets the same test scores and applies to the same programs she will still be offered many more scholarships as your son. This is because the STEM fields are lacking, and therefore are demanding more women.

Let's not be ignorant of this, women are pandered to by the STEM fields, this may or may not be taken as demeaning in itself to a young woman looking to see where she should find herself in the future.

For your son, there will be absolutely zero incentive other than his own interest in the field to pursue a STEM course of study. Your daughter will be given scholarship incentives. There will be special allowances that will give her an advantage. She doesn't need this advantage, but society has decided that she does.

This isn't a prejudice or bias on my part, it's speaking from experience. Do a scholarship search: http://www.google.com/search?q=scholarship+search+women+in+engineering

The same prejudice that possibly directed the booth operator to give your son the experiment kit instead of your daughter will cause the world to cheer for her instead of your son.

My advice to you is to ensure her that she is not the underdog. That she does not need special treatment. If a boy is preferred over her for whatever reason that does not mean that a boy will always be preferred over her, and she can succeed. Next time she visits a similar booth she can dazzle the operator, she can outscore on the tests, she can figure out complex problems. She doesn't need pandering, when your son gets recognition he deserves or does not deserve instead of her that does not devalue her. She does not need special gear.

Life will not always be fair, but she will succeed anyway.

It's all wrong of course, but she will eventually benefit from this prejudice.

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    "don't teach your daughter that she will be prejudice against" - yes, if you pretend that prejudice doesn't exist it will 'fade into the background'. It seems that the worst possible thing that you could do to a victim of prejudice is try and convince them that it doesn't exist. – jwg Apr 14 '15 at 7:56
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    @jwg Pretending that prejudice doesn't exist isn't the same as teaching her that prejudice will not dictate her life. If someone didn't give her an experiment kit, don't set her up to believe that girls simply aren't offered kits because they are girls. This just puts a chip on her shoulder, and chips don't bolster success, encouragement does. – Gorchestopher H Apr 14 '15 at 11:29
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    @jwg And yet how many male STEM students are honestly told how disadvantaged they are? I certainly wasn't. – Studoku Apr 14 '15 at 11:49
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    @jwg She's not a kitten, she's a girl. Her life cannot be dictated. There are structures in place, in academia, in industry, in the White House that actively encourage female participation in STEM fields. These structures actively support her. She will on occasion be preferred because she is female, and on other occasions she will experience some kind of prejudice. Neither of those forces are powerful enough to dictate her life. Some of her failures or missed successes will not be due to gender inequality. Teaching her that everything can be blamed on gender discrimination isn't helpful. – Gorchestopher H Apr 14 '15 at 13:01
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    Yes. You can't on the one hand say that you believe that your daughter is strong and independent and can accomplish whatever she wants in life, and in the next sentence say that she is the helpless victim of the off-hand prejudices of people around her. Do you want to teach your daughter that to succeed, she needs to work hard and excel? Or do you want to teach her that to succeed she must beg for favors and special allowances? – Jay Apr 14 '15 at 13:20
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First of all, try to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's not useful to attribute something to gender bias that might have easily been something else. My overwhelming experience is that people in this area bend over backwards to make girls feel welcome.

Even if it was bias, in this day and age, it's almost certainly unintentional. I don't mean to stereotype, but people in STEM fields aren't exactly renowned for our superb social skills. Most likely, they simply misinterpreted your daughter's behavior as disinterest, especially at a family event where some kids just get dragged along for the ride.

I've read a few studies to that effect, but can't find them at the moment, where teachers favor boys unintentionally because they tend to seek attention more aggressively. Even teachers who think they don't are surprised (and often horrified) when confronted with video evidence. It takes conscious effort to overcome, and someone manning a booth at a science fair is unlikely to have received any training in that area.

As a parent, this has always been relatively easy to handle for me, because my son is an extrovert and his little sister is an introvert. We've often had to actively keep him from hogging all the attention, and give her a nudge to join in, although he is usually very good about encouraging her.

Assuming a nudge isn't enough, we just say, "Okay, Michael, say thank you. It's Kayla's turn to talk now. Kayla, why don't you tell him about the robot we made together?" In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the representative thought you were biased by not intervening like this on your daughter's behalf.

Bottom line is, things aren't always what they appear. You don't have to make a big deal out of things in order for your daughter to feel included.

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    +1 all day long. Give people the benefit of the doubt and encourage her to push for her own success. Unfortunately it's always more popular to assume wrong doing at the hands of others, or look to disguise your daughter as someone you will believe will be accepted by "them". – Gorchestopher H Apr 14 '15 at 11:46
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Personally, I wouldn't get over-excited about it. My oldest daughter is a software developer, and I am proud of her accomplishments. I certainly am not biased against women entering STEM fields.

But when you start looking for bias, it's very easy to find it. This is a very unproductive game. I wasn't there at the incident you mention, so I can't judge based on your short description. Yes, maybe it was sex discrimination. Or maybe your son acted interested and your daughter didn't. Maybe he made an incorrect guess about the children's ages. Maybe he just happened to be looking in your son's direction and not your daughter's. Etc. Realistically, maybe in the past he's seen that boys tend to be much more interested in robotics than girls, and if you want to call that "sex discrimination", fine, but at some point I think it's reasonable to target people who statistically are more likely to respond: You see more ads for sports equipment in sports magazines than in science magazines, not because makers of sporting goods hate nerds, but because they've long since figured out where they get the best response.

I think the appropriate thing to do in a situation like that would be to say to the person, "Hey, can my daughter have one of those too?" If he says, "No, girls aren't smart enough to understand robotics", then yes, he's a sexist jerk. I'm guessing that he would not say anything of the sort, and probably wasn't thinking it.

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    This is a good answer. Don't expect prejudice to be the motivation behind every slight, assume that it is not present and respond accordingly. – Gorchestopher H Apr 14 '15 at 11:27
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Was the representative a man? It's quite possible he felt more comfortable approaching young boys rather than girls (the cultural bias against men as nurturing and safe around children, particularly girls, is still strong in the US - sexism hurts men too).

It doesn't really matter if the act was motivated by malice or an error. A lot of sexism isn't meant to be cruel, but it still has a negative effect. A man in engineering, for example, may feel more comfortable mentoring a teenage boy than a teenage girl, and there are fewer women available as mentors for that teenage girl. Those facts may make a difference in what field the boy and girl may decide to go into.

I was a girl who was in the "boy's interest" activities growing up. I did rockets and programming in summer school, I excelled in math and science. I started my college career in Computer Engineering. I ended up changing majors to Biology, but then going back for a Master's in Computer Science.

It wasn't easy being in Computer Engineering/Science, I was often one of two or three girls in my class (I think I was the only girl in one of them). Despite there being a well-funded Women in Computing club (whose members were largely women minoring in CS), it was socially much easier to major in biology. I felt like I had to explain why I chose my major less often compared to when I was doing Computer Engineering. Also, being the only woman makes someone self-conscious, especially in a field where "common sense" says women don't excel.

You can't control anti-STEM bias for your daughter. The world works as it does and you can't make all classes be equally populated, or change the surprised looks on people's faces when she says what her interests are. What you can do is help her be confident in her self and her abilities. You can show her that women have always excelled in STEM, there are plenty of women who made major contributions to every field.

You should talk about how things were harder for women in STEM fields than men, but that it's improving. Trying to hide the facts will not prepare your daughter well, if she chooses a STEM field.

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    "It doesn't really matter if the act was motivated by malice or an error." Much of it is indeed simple oversight, discomfort, lack of awareness, or "I'm just used to seeing more men in this industry" rather than an explicit belief that women don't belong in STEM fields. But you're completely right that girls and women notice it. – Acire Apr 14 '15 at 15:03
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I unfortunately ran into this from the other side of the booth at a maker faire, and chose to try a kickstarter so I could support more than one "kit" per family since the families themselves would almost always encourage their boy to participate while the girl obviously was interested. We were successful:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2070729777/pressure-sensing-switch-make-and-take/description

I expect that most educators are aware of this situation, and are trying various methods to avoid this, but are restricted by lack of resources from being as open and free as they might like with their materials.

However, the focus you should have is as a parent - is your daughter receiving the encouragement and experiences she needs to feel comfortable and welcome in STEM fields?

As such, I recommend the following:

  • When you run into this situation, with your daughter there, ask the educator if there's another kit they can provide your daughter.
  • If they can, great! If not, ask them how you can obtain one, or how your children can successfully share one kit while both still gaining the same understanding and knowledge.
  • Approach the organizers afterwards and ask them if the event is meant for and open for all, relating your experience. They will almost always assure you that it is, and that they will take measures to make sure those involved next time are more inclusive.
  • Consider participating. It's hard work, and very, very demanding to try to bring complex topics to any child, but it's also very rewarding. You don't have to have any special qualifications or expertise - just a desire to help children learn. Approach the organizers and ask how you can help, or look around for ideas and come up with a kit or teaching moment you can showcase at such events. Then you will be able to show by example how to help all children explore STEM.

Keep in mind that your encouragement and support will affect your daughter far more than the snubs of others in her youth. It will take a long time before we stop hearing stories like this, but in the meantime you can make sure she is exposed to STEM topics and encouraged to pursue her interests regardless of the attitude of her educators and peers.

  • +1 Good information regarding the effort put in by STEM organizations to encourage female involvement. – Gorchestopher H Apr 14 '15 at 13:46

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