“You can’t be what you can’t see”

Richmond, Virginia, USA is beautiful at this time of the year. Warm, green, relaxed … and, currently, host to several hundred passionate educators of girls who are attending the annual conference of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, the theme of which this year is ‘From STEM to STEAM: Girls’ Schools Leading the Way’. A host of keynote speakers and presenters have been running sessions on a huge variety of inspiring topics related to STEM and STEAM learning and careers, and the messages are strong, and upbeat. After all, technology continues to evolve and develop at a phenomenal rate, but it doesn’t do this of its own accord – people are needed to make this happen, and to invent, create, solve problems, innovate, run, organise. A plethora of opportunities, careers and roles in this area of human endeavour await all of our young people.

Young women, however, continue to be underrepresented in STEM and STEAM tertiary education courses and careers. In fact, according to the inspiring Maria Klawe from Harvey Mudd College, in the case of Computer Science courses in U.S. universities, female representation has in fact dropped over the past 30 years, from more than 30% to less than 15%. Yet Computer Science graduates are predicted to have the best job (and therefore financial) prospects over the next two decades … this, as Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code pointed out, is actually a serious issue of gender equality and pay equity.

So how can we really, really address this situation? Well, starting by implementing even some of the strategies highlighted at the conference would help; one powerful and common theme to emerge, however, was that girls absolutely need more role models in STEM or STEAM subjects – and especially in computer science / coding / digital technologies. “You can’t be what you can’t see” – this message has resonated throughout the conference, in presentations and discussions. Essentially, we need to find ways in which to introduce girls to older girls and women who are comfortable and working already in STEM and STEAM areas. From introducing pupil-led creative coding projects into the curriculum, to planning and running aspirational careers conferences, or organising work experience in the tech industry … all and every strategy can help girls to see that this is an exciting area in which they could excel.

What was also clear is that there are two other key messages we must take away and act on: first, that as adults (parents as well as educators), we need to shed our own inhibitions and fears about technology – we don’t know everything, nor should we, and we nonetheless bring our wisdom and understandings to the new knowledge and experiences that young people develop as they explore the world of STEM and STEAM. If we fear this new world, we inhibit and undermine our girls; one of the worst messages we can give girls, as female role models, is that we were no good at Maths, or we don’t approve of gaming, or that science, computers and engineering are somehow messy and undesirable. We have to embrace and explicitly approve of all of this, as well as encouraging our girls just to go for it (the message of my session on girls and online gaming).

Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – this is urgent. There is no time to waste – every day that passes without action is a lost opportunity. If we want to facilitate change, then every day we need actively to encourage our girls to enjoy playing with computers, to be creative with technology and to come into contact with other girls and women who are enjoying and being creative in this area.

So … no time to lose! And I can pretty much guarantee that there will be several hundred educators headed out from Richmond tomorrow, back to their schools all over the world, from the US to Australia to the UK, who are not planning to sit back and wait.


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