I was born in Indonesia, and spent most of my secondary education in Indonesia, too. Like the stereotypical Asian parents, Indonesian parents regard science and technology education as better than social science education. This attitude is supported by many Indonesian school teachers as well, as if being a good student means studying science and technology.
I remember, a year before I left Indonesia, my aptitude test at school resulted in a higher likelihood of succeeding in social science program than in exact science program. Both of the likelihood scores were more than 50%, implying that I could succeed in both. However, the test organization wrote a recommendation to the school that I was to attend the exact science program for the last two years of secondary school.
I ended up spending my last two years of secondary school in Australia. There I was astonished by the fact that the only mandatory subjects were English and Mathematics. For the other subjects, we could take a cool combination such as Physics, Economics, Drama, or Computer Science, Visual Arts, Business. Before attending the last two years of secondary school, every student was advised to find out what they wanted to do after graduation, and to select some subjects required by their desired college programs.
These days, I read about various efforts by the government and citizens of USA and European Union in increasing the numbers of girls attending STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) or ICT (Information and Communication Technology) programs. I had to question the effort of marrying Barbie and LEGO in order to attract girls to do engineering. Why should we? Girls who are attracted to engineering would have chosen LEGO as toys anyway. Children are honest. Give a doll to a girl who don’t like dolls and she will throw it away. Shower this girl with a bunch of cute pink stuffs and she will sneak into her brother’s room to play with black stuffs and trucks. I was a witness to a 7-year-old girl who sold stickers to her schoolmates, showing an entrepreneurial skill.
First of all, this issue is biological. Attraction to engineering and mathematics is not necessarily a boy thing. Many girls love trucks, but there are many more girls who love dolls or say “I want to be a mother”. We cannot change this unless they discover more of themselves to desire other roles (or a DNA mutation happens). What we can change is their ability to focus and make choices. They need to be supported to find their purpose in life. Maybe the doll lover will eventually be a child education expert, or she will run a foster care. Maybe the truck lover will eventually be an engineer.
Next, this is about socioeconomic pressure. In developed countries (like Australia), youths are supported to find their place in society. They are not pushed to pursue STEM subjects, because success does not begin only with STEM education. People can earn a living with any skills, because social security systems are well established and wage gap is much smaller than those in developing countries. In developing countries (like Indonesia), youths are supported to get as much education as possible for increasing their chance of getting a good job. A good job means you can eat good food, live in a multi-room house, can afford transportation costs, and send your children to school, unlike many others who are struggling. A good job means a good pay, and a good pay (notoriously) requires STEM education.
Therefore, it is more likely that we find secondary school girls taking STEM subjects in Indonesia than in the developed countries. They diligently study and do their homework just because their brains can afford to do it. Like what I did at secondary school, they gulp down a combination of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology almost every day. Many of these girls attend STEM programs at college, but only some of them continue to work in STEM after graduation. Their education enable them to get a good job, although not necessarily STEM jobs. These STEM graduates are wanted for business, management, and financial jobs, because they are regarded as having good potentials. Of course, because they were the more-than-average students who were ushered to the exact science program at the secondary school.
Why did these girls choose to forget their STEM education? They chose not to work in STEM, because they dislike it. And motherhood does not differentiate between those who like STEM and those who don’t (many mothers who like STEM do tech jobs from home e.g. web programming). No one told them that they are not good at it. No one tells Indonesian girls not to pursue exact science, yet eventually we don’t have many women working in STEM. Once their socioeconomic needs are met, they revert back to their “biological comfort”.
Research shows that many women are caregiver or social worker at heart. They are also artists, business managers, and communicators. These women dislike working with chemical equations, mathematics, physics formula, and programming languages. I am an example of that. I was fascinated by architectural design as a child and psychology as a teenager. However, (like those Indonesian girls) I took STEM subjects at secondary school and then attended a STEM program at college. Yet, I am no longer working in STEM, although I still work for STEM.
Do you know that to work for STEM you don’t even have to attend STEM education programs? The internet was the reason why I attended a STEM program at college. As a teenager I taught myself to code HTML because I wanted to have my own website. I had one at Geocities, which got me some remote friends. I decided to study Computer Science at college. I loved computer networks. I loved how everything can be connected.
As a female computer scientist I was indeed a minority, but I never encountered discrimination. As a woman I received respect from male colleagues. I am not sure whether this is cultural, because in the USA women get disrespectful treatment from male colleagues, making them more eager in getting more women to work in STEM. I doubt that diversity will reduce discrimination. What we need is an attitude change, that different does not mean bad, that the minority does not mean the lower class.
I stopped being a computer scientist, because I discovered more about myself. I am still an internet junkie. I love connecting people across the globe as well as locally physically. I love it when people are drawn to each other. My interest in psychology is apparently the hidden passion that has played a role since my aptitude test at school. I see people behind every device that is connected to the internet. I see a framework in every interaction between people and technology, like an architectural design. I love designing for people.
Dear parents, what do your daughters do daily? What do they say about themselves? What after-school activities do they like? Have you been spending enough time with them? Have you tried to be closer to them than letting peer pressure closing in on them? Have you guided them to begin the search from their self? Have you helped them discover their purpose in life?