Oct 6, 2015

Girls and STEM: Biased Teachers' Efffect

There's an interesting study that came out this year that might be of interest to those of you interested in making STEM more accessible to girls.  Lavy and Sand's paper, On the Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps: Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers' Stereotypical Biases, caught my attention because of the international nature of the research.
image by heribertosdb (Heriberto), via rgbstock.com

According to an Education Weekly article,  the researchers had teachers grade Hebrew, English, and math tests taken by 5th grade boys as well as girls. Some teachers could tell the gender of the test taker; others couldn't. While the difference in blind and non-blind grading was statistically insignificant for both boys' and girls' tests, girls tended to get higher grades on gender-blind grading, and boys tended to score higher with gender-known grading. Then, the study apparently tracked girls' progress in math, both regarding their future test scores and math and science courses they took in high school. Yep, if the girls had biased teachers in 6th grade, their math test scores tended to decline, and they were less likely to take more advanced math and science courses.

Cynic as I am (who was schooled in the U.S.), I'm seldom surprised to hear about gender bias in American schools. However, Israel is a country that sees its women as equal enough to have required terms of military service for them as well as their men. The fact that bias issues exist so early in their system is interesting.

I haven't yet been able to lay my hands on the study's details, but if the findings are sound, it underlines the necessity for a two pronged approach to removing social barriers to girls and STEM:
  1. Not only do educational structures need to address mitigation of negative influences within their systems BUT ALSO
  2. Parents and influential adults in girls' lives need to support girls with constructive coping strategies
Why the latter? A few reasons come to mind:
  • Until educational systems can be free from bias, girls will encounter biased educators somewhere along their education. If not in elementary school, then it may be in middle school, high school, college, or even graduate school. Knowing how to cope with biased instructors can mitigate these situations.
  • If your child is lucky enough to be able to get into the most ideal educational situations, the STEM profession is still rife with bias. In a way, delaying exposure to this kind of tough reality until a woman is nearly mid-life may end up being more catastrophic. The study, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, revealed an interesting phenomena with women engineers: if they disliked their particular engineering job, they were likely to leave engineering completely, as opposed to identifying the problem as being their environment. This was not seen in other competitive and demanding fields such as medicine or law. Knowing how to keep environment from influencing sense of identity is invaluable.
  • Biases plague most people for one reason or another. Resilience skills can be important for a full and happy life.
While I disagree with the final statement in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch's Trial By Fury episode regarding algebra (i.e., "and then you can forget it"), I do agree with the larger idea that handling bad teachers is a necessary talent. In fact, I deal with that when I'm in the workforce: The majority of my job is dealing with people who intentionally and unintentionally don't communicate technical information clearly.

A good school would constantly check its processes to increase gender-blind evaluations whenever possible.  For example, I used to do this by grading tests backwards, from the back to the front which was the only page with the name on it. I actually surprised myself on how often I guessed wrong on whose paper I was grading: some students did much better than I thought based on classroom performance, and some students who seemed on top of it, kind of spun their wheels.

A good teacher would strive to be a talent-scout more than a judge. When I taught, I tried to observe what was stumping students who struggled and tried to push the high performing students into areas that were challenges to them personally (oddly, public speaking was often such an area). By doing so, my testing and evaluation tools became ways to diagnose areas of strength and challenge, rather than discerning the "wheat from the chaff". Oddly enough, in my current job in industry, my manager has commented that I tend to understand why people were misunderstanding the situation rather than just saying the person was not sharp enough -- or worse, was a liar. By doing so, I can approach them as partners in solving the problem at hand, keeping lines of communication open. Not doing so can result in standoffs, shouting matches, posturing, or just not getting the job done.

A good parent (or influential adult) doesn't have to have the answers from personal experience (sometimes that personal experience may result in some post-traumatic stress!). Instead, a good parent can get children the resources they need: a role model, strategy books, or a process that can serve them for the rest of their lives. My parents supported me when I struggled academically with something as simple as getting me a planner to figure out my assignments and scheduling when I had to start them. But they never let a bad teacher be an excuse for not learning. They said things like "We know it's more important for you to know how to add rather than do it quickly, but after you know how, you can do it faster--and if that's what's required, that's what you need to practice."

Together we can help girls get over the barriers they encounter in their lives. And they will be the better for it.