Feminine Gender Norms in STEM

Ani Martinez
Apr 4, 2018 · 14 min read

Below you will find the raw and unedited email follow-up message sent to attendees from a 2018 Remake Learning Meetup. We hope you find these conversations interesting and appreciate our ad hoc public archive. Interested in learning more about the Remake Learning Network? Please visit remakelearning.org

Hello and thank you for attending the latest Remake Learning Lunch & Learn: Feminine Gender Norms in STEM.

I’d like to send love and appreciation to our guest, Riki Wilchins. Thank you so much for making the trip to share your wisdom with us. I’d also like to thank Gwen’s Girls for so graciously hosting us. And of course, thanks to all of YOU for taking time out of your day to come learn together.

In Case You Missed It

This is a brief summary of what happened. You’ll find the full and unedited notes below my signature. You’ll find the slides from the presentation attached to this email. For more information and publications from True Child, please visit https://www.truechild.org/

SVCF STEM for Funders.pptx

Let’s Talk About Gender+

This was a conversation about gender, but as Riki clarified from the very beginning, the issues are intersectional, meaning all conversations about gender have racial issues, economic issues, ableism issues, and more. The idea here is that forms of oppression are interconnected, interact, and help to entrench systemic inequities to uphold states of power.

So… Some Gender Norms

Normally, we hear gender norms and we are triggered to think of LGBTQ+, but gender norms also mean feminine and masculine reward and punishment systems. “Do boy properly” or “do girl properly.” We also know that gender norms are a huge cause of the inequities we see in STEM.

Some key points here:

  • We know that Gender Norms are Learned
  • And Gender Norms Take Practice
  • So the impact is enhanced in low-income environments — we see this particularly in punishments.
  • Gender Norms have Personal Effects and Systemic Effects

So what the STEM Field has done and continues to do is to think about external obstacles, interpersonal obstacles, and yet girls continue to drop out.

Remember, beliefs drive behavior.

  • So why do we see a sharp decline in ages 5–9?
  • There is obviously something going on at puberty, right?

We think girls get into a double-bind at adolescence — opt out of femininity, or opt out of STEM.

This presentation continued and led to a fantastic conversation among the group. One thing that stuck with me most directly related to the presentation was the fact that we have the research. Now academics need to be funded to go out into the world to do the sticky work of doing the work in the community. True Child is really an experiment in this.

Like what you’re reading? Check out the full and unedited notes below my signature!

Resources from the Group:

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At Gwen’s Girls

Please get the powerpoint to the group

There is also the White Paper at TrueChild.com (org?)

  • There is a presentation about boys, but Riki doesn’t get requests to do that presentation as often
  • But Riki does believe that there are similar pressures between boys and girls
  • This talk is generally about gender, though, so we want to start by talking about Intersectionality
  • The idea that types of oppression interact
  • So… Some Gender Norms
  • Normally we hear gender norms and we are triggered to think of LGBTQ, but gender norms also mean feminine and masculine reward and punishment systems. “Do boy properly” or “do girl properly”
  • In most societies we find that most boys want to be masculine and most girls want to be feminine. BUT what’s important is that the ideas of what masculinity or femininity are are subject to opinion and purpose
  • We also know that gender norms are a huge cause of the inequities we see in STEM
  • We also know that Gender Norms are Learned
  • And Gender Norms Take Practice
  • So the impact is enhanced in low-income environments — we see this particularly in punishments.
  • Interestingly, we see this reflected in high-income environments
  • Some of this parallel is due to patterns of consumption
  • Gender Norms have Personal Effects and Systemic Effects
  • For example, Latina students are likely to drop out and/or be pushed out of school
  • So it can’t just be about ‘changing kids’ but also changing institutions and systems
  • This is also reflected for transgender youth
  • Riki makes the point that many LGBTQ youth live in pain, but so do many gender conforming youth, but funders are aware of LGBTQ pain in terms of research, but less “trendy” to fund gender conforming identity
  • We see gender stereotypes as racial, racial stereotypes as gendered, and also layered by race
  • SO WHAT ARE GENDER NORMS?
  • Masculinity: most of what we know about gender norms came from the University of Chicago in the 1980s.
  • The researcher there thought he could measure things like strength, agression, sexcual prowess, Psy Toughness, but he also realized this is made more complex by belief, and we see this reflected in “lower-life-expectancy” behaviors
  • Femininity: desirable, deferential, dependent
  • Riki did some work with the Heinz foundation that reflects this
  • So for girls, these gender norms lead to a systemic issues for women being under-treated for health and pain
  • Riki ‘picks on health’ here, but says they could also focus on education here
  • Femininity cont’
  • So what’s missing? Logic, intellect, assertiveness, etc.
  • So what the STEM Field has done and continues to do is to think about external obstacles, interpersonal obstacles, and yet GIRLS CONTINUE TO DROP OUT
  • Remember, beliefs drive behavior
  • So why do we see a sharp decline in ages 5–9?
  • There is obviously something going on at puberty, right?
  • We think girls get into a double-bind at adolescence — opt out of femininity, or opt out of STEM
  • So Riki started asking girls in the SOuth Side of Chicago — what’s going on in STEM?
  • Middle school they start thinking about boys , so on and so forth
  • Riki says that first wave feminism teaches us that if we can just clear out external factors, we’ll fix problems
  • But when Riki shared this with the girls in the Chicago, they busted out laughing, “Not in junior high you can’t!”
  • So, it becomes evident that researching gender norms becomes a revolution of the obvious
  • So what’s the problem for girls?
  • They said when girls get to middle school they feel they need to ‘dumb it down for boys’
  • So some of this is the girls own beliefs, but some is what they think the boys believe about them. So co-ed work is important here
  • Can’t we just focus on equity?
  • Of course you can! But what we find is that gender norms is not an obvious form of discrimination. Gender norms are collective beliefs, so we haven’t yet thought how to change these collective beliefs. That makes this conversation difficult and the “needle difficult to move”
  • Let’s think about World Bank’s investment for equity across many different countries.
  • After spending lots of money, at the root of the problem they found gender norms about women.
  • Let’s say it again Belief Systems Drive Behavior which makes INTERSECTIONALITY KEY
  • When you teach young people to think critically about harmful gender norms, you get better outcomes than if you ignore. Revolutions of the obvious.
  • Young people are receiving messages constantly, so they are already ‘in the effect’ but we need to make sure they are in the conversation . we don’t want to change their mind about what they are passionate about, what toys they want to play with, what media they want to consume, but what’s important is that we give them the tools to question these things, to think critically about these things. Help kids give the tools to do this work with adults.
  • There’s a huge research base about this work. Use Google Scholar for example.
  • Google Scholar is a rough-edge tool at best, but you’ll see overwhelming evidence toward gender norms
  • The academics, in this sense, ‘’have done their job.” BUT all this research cycles around the academic community. So, True Child tries to sit in the middle between practice and research to bridge this gap. This includes funders.
  • There is also the IGWG that is coordinating research and practice around many groups internationally
  • There are also a number of nonprofits that seem to understand this work, and many different foundations that are investing in the work ; and also certain government offices, departments, etc. The pattern, though, is that many of these organizations and organizers are women led. (See Carmen Anderson’s support from the Heinz Endowments)
  • True Child has developed some exercises to think about Feminine Gender Norms and STEM with fairly humble tools, like flip chart and stickies
  • This includes structure for discussion and they’ve found that educators and students take to it pretty well
  • This is reflected in some materials developed for Heinz for Black Girls
  • And they are seeing strong responses in their metrics with simple interventions
  • They’ve also found young people love talking about this because they don’t have many places and spaces to discuss this.
  • Please note, True Child is looking for support to implement these tools locally, this includes conversations with the YWCA and Strong Women Strong Girls, so if you’re organization is interested, please let Riki know because there are a few spaces left for community organizations

Questions/Discussion

  • What does Pan-Sexual means?
  • Pan is an idea based on the idea that there is more than two genders, or that one can be gender neutral
  • For people in the room: Have your students said things to you like, “I can’t be pretty and smart?” and if so, have you had challenges responding to this? What is this conversation like in Pittsburgh?
  • Penn State: I have heard these things, so my response has been to reach out to role-models so they can see there are lots of ways to do this. But this doesn’t address the “not in junior high you can’t”
  • Girls of Steel: We run an all girls robotics team. What I’ve been thinking is that I only know the girls in our environment, but I don’t know them in “their” environments, like school. I see how they behave when they are with us, but I don’t know how they behave elsewhere.
  • What I’ve seen is that even when we give girls all the tools and mindsets, they are still battling the gender norms every day
  • I don’t want to stereotype, but we see girls come in that are dressed to work, and we see some girls that are coming in wearing clothes that are more reflective of the feminine gender norms
  • City Gender Equity in the Mayor’s Office: You can get lots of information and resources here! I also teach at Pitt to help students understand expectations, safety, etc. So being implicit versus explicit about expectations becomes important. Could a conversation about what’s prompting attire for these girls be productive?
  • And what are the gender norms that are generational?
  • YWCA: We had a dress for success program, with leadership pittsburgh folks from the corporate world come in. The kids participating unveiled all sorts of nuanced perspectives
  • Riki: we are running some pilots in Baltimore, and the young people there have asked for a teacher gender toolkit to help teacher interrogate their own unconscious bias’ . This group has also requested a parent toolkit.
  • “I think this is the only way we can have success”
  • I’m curious about this idea for the ability to shift identity based on what space you are in. So, I’m at Girls of Steel Practice, I’m in class, I’m at the gym, etc… I’m interested in this idea that you can shift your ability to understand yourself in relationship to STEM.
  • Riki: That’s what we’re trying to do in the exercises I mentioned. We see this with boys, too. There’s no real place for them to talk about masculinity. So, we are trying to create safe spaces and kids just open up, but it takes an adult to start the conversation.
  • We are still missing the support to think about faith-based work.
  • We’re setting up a makerspace at our school, grades 6–12. This sounds like the sort of thing that would be good at the beginning. What I hear from other makerspaces is that, “girls are just not that interested”
  • Riki: This is certainly the pattern, so we definitely need to start talking to kids about this
  • GoS: I am really curious about this. We think we’ve created a safe space for them. Can you help me think of a question to start to find this answer?
  • Riki: This is part of the curriculum. Part of this is to ask them to define what a scientist is. Or to draw out a chart about qualities of men and women, and then look at what happens if you switch the headings. Other things are to ask them what it means to be called a good girl, bad girl, good boy, bad boy, etc. These are distressingly detailed, elaborate, and luminous
  • City: My question is coming from a place where I don’t work directly with youth. For those of us at the policy level… we’re trying to find a way to be intergenerational in spaces that are not designed to be intergenerational.
  • What is the research you have on women that drop out or don’t feel connected… what is needed in higher ed?
  • Riki: I don’t have the answer to that. We’re limited to what we are funded to do, but most of our funded has been looking at middle school girls. Funders want things around planned behavior, but we just don’t have the resources yet. We also need more robust, long-term data and long-term projects. These six to eight exercises were meant as a pilot. And we’re still learning to do this dance…
  • I’ve even overheard things that a professor asks such as, “to the young men in the room, what if your father passes a company down to do” and this is in a group full of women! What year are we in?
  • This reinforces the three Ds Riki outlines for us; most of our institutions reinforce this, too. …In intersectional ways!
  • I went to CMU when “we had a sexism problem” I was told that no other girl had ever touched a computer. CMU noticed this, and they said the problem was the culture of the university. So what they did was change how they admitted students. They now base admissions on interest, not background.
  • We see this reflected through the NSF project at the Pitt School of Engineering
  • Pitt: We see through our intro bio and chem levels, students of various educational and SES, or racial makeup are leaving. They found an intervention that seems effective is to have students journal about facing a challenge and safe that for one year. We see that students who don’t seem to have a support group obvious to them, the interventions become harder to intentionally address that first hurdle,.
  • LaRoche: What we find in our admissions is that students are interested in STEM and healthcare, but they don’t have the high school curriculum to qualify. Many of the students have not taken chemistry for example. So to get into nursing, you need chem, so I’ve tried to do interventions with specific schools to make sure they aware this is a starting block for many students. We also have a whole course about pay-wage discrimination. So we’ve made many different partnerships to conduct a middle school program at LaRoche. What I like about this is there is also a parent-track. Parents get some science programming, some finance programming, etc. At first it was all girls. But now it’s about a community-based project for STEM. It started as a side-track job for me, and now it’s in my job description. If anyone is interested let me know!
  • YWCA: Manages an afterschool program for girls in STEM. 6 Saturdays of the year, we take girls to college campus’ so they can self-identify as students there.
  • Penn State: as you are talking about processes, to be able to add gender norms into that would be powerful. I have two good friends who are teachers at middle and high school. But I am astounded how often they make comments that are gender-based.
  • That’s what’s exhausting about confronting oppression, right?
  • And that is even more challenging when you have many people invested in maintaining the system.
  • Assemble: we’re different, right? We focus on letting people identify what they want to be. It’s also a space where people can define themselves and normalize their identities, but what we struggle with socially, is how we might normalize science.
  • I worked in a high-poverty district that told us not to teach science because there was just no time for that… Without interdisciplinary approaches so that science can be part of that.
  • I think you said San Jose and Baltimore Public were interested in parent engagement… how are parents coming to the table?
  • Part of their summer school is to encourage parents come in to the process. They get lots of parents involved that way.
  • Riki: I want to interject for one moment too, to think about STEM v STEAM. For boys, that A is critical because most boys that go into art are considered gay.
  • What about research-practice partnerships?
  • Well, the research has been done, so we don’t need to worry about the time delay. Now academics need to be funded to go out into the world to do the sticky work of doing the work in the community. True Child is really an experiment in this.
  • Funding moves glacially. And Policy Makers by large are not going to read on this issues. They will wait to see a group of community organizations before we get in the water.
  • Riki: I also have my first non-queer theory book coming out. I found an internationally facing publisher! There will be a robust chapter on STEM. CONGRATULATIONS

Written by

Field Director, Remake Learning Network

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