Column: Take initiative against gender stereotypes in STEM


Horia Andrei VARLAN

Several graduated cylinders of various thickness and heights with white side markings in front of a large beaker. They are all filled about halfway with red or blue chemical compounds. The blue ink is showing signs of Brownian motion when dissolving into water.

Adam Clements

A few weeks ago, during a discussion of the book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my English teacher asked girls in our class to talk about ways they had experienced sexism in school. A number of my peers brought up one place: science classrooms. They brought up an issue I had never before thought about. When students complete science labs in groups, which is a large part of the curriculum in most science courses, boys in each group tend to rush to handle the equipment and technology involved in the lab–the “fun” elements. Almost invariably, girls are pushed into the “scribe” role, taking notes on the the observations made by their male counterparts.
Since this conversation, I have begun paying attention in my own science classroom and noticed a consistency to this pattern. Each time I have been put into a lab group, it has been necessary to designate one group member to take notes on the experiment. Each time, the boys in the group, myself included, have habitually made some excuse about having bad handwriting. Each time, eyes have eventually turned to a girl in the group, who agrees to do it despite showing little excitement or interest in the task. Each time I have looked around the room and discovered that a girl is holding the notebook in nearly every other group, too.
Continuing to allow girls to be consistently pushed into note-taking roles in science classrooms only perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes. It encourages traditional societal perceptions of science as a male field, with women as secretaries or lab assistants, which inhibits female potential and opportunities. If we hope to decrease the massive gender disparity and sexism in STEM fields, we must turn to the roots of the issue and make a conscious effort to cut off enforcement of male dominance in the sciences early on.
For boys, this means recognizing that manipulating all the lab tools themselves and dictating notes to their female peers consistently throughout the year creates an extremely unfair and imbalanced environment. They should work on noticing when a girl has repeatedly been assigned all of a group’s writing responsibilities, and volunteering to take a turn themselves.
For teachers, this means being aware of the gender dynamics in their classrooms and actively looking out for any silent sexism being allowed to persist. In certain situations, it may mean intervening when male students are clearly dominating and controlling a group.
Of course, it would be untrue and unreasonable to make a blanket statement that girls taking on writing roles in science classrooms is always a result of sexism and gender stereotypes. Occasionally, there are male volunteers and this issue does not arise. Sometimes, some girls may simply truly enjoy writing down data points and observations. But it is too commonplace and widespread to not be treated as a legitimate symptom of sexism beyond that.
In a world where significantly more women are obtaining college degrees than men, and many of the best jobs for educated people are in STEM fields, it is an enormous wrongdoing to discourage girls from the sciences by pushing them into limited roles. It is a tangible reflection of the sexism present in our society and schools that can be remedied.
The dominance of men in STEM professions will not end with letting girls execute experiments while boys take notes in high school science classrooms. But creating an environment where traditional, sexist gender roles are not normalized in such a way would be a step in the right direction.