Opinion: Start early to bridge the STEM gender divide

At age 17, student Kira Noel is done with being a minority.

The Grade 12 student in Ottawa, who wants to be a computer scientist, was one of two girls in the computer-engineering class in Grade 10. In Grade 11, she was the only one. Her Grade 12 computer-engineering class has three girls.

Back in Grade 7, she was the only girl with nine boys when she took an extracurricular robotics course. Grade 12 has seen some difference. “We’ve been making an effort to get more girls involved. It’s 15 girls out of 45.”

Now, there’s data to back up Noel’s experience. Actua, an education group advocating for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, teased the T out of STEM to gauge attitudes and confidence of youths aged 12 to 18 and their parents to coding and digital literacy.

It recently released the results of a cross-Canada random online survey of 1,500 youths and 1,500 parents or guardians that it says is the first of its kind.

The good news was a surprise.

“Across the board, boys and girls and parents recognized that these are really important skills for the future,” says Jennifer Flanagan, president and CEO of Actua.

Nine in 10 parents, guardians and children thought knowing how to use digital technologies will be important for future careers, while seven in 10 believed that about coding skills as well.

Then came the findings that stick out like sore thumbs, and these were not a surprise.

One, boys continue to be way more enthusiastic than girls about careers that involve coding – about half said they were very or extremely interested, whereas only a quarter of the girls did. This lack of enthusiasm isn’t related to lack of skills, but to lack of confidence.

“When we asked about how confident youth were in using technology – in using smartphones, using a tablet, using a laptop – they were the same for boys and girls,” Flanagan says. “But when we ask them about their confidence in ability … in actually coding or programming or tech skills, 41 per cent of boys are confident while only 28 per cent of girls are confident.

“To us, that is a very alarming result.”

As a student, Noel said, “There was definitely more pressure (for girls) to be good.”

“If you’re a guy if you make a mistake (then you’re told) ‘Oh, you made a mistake. You can learn from it.’

“If you’re a girl then you’ve failed, it’s not just a mistake. You’ve failed at this.”

Had there been more girls, she says, “I would have been more comfortable sharing opinions earlier on.”

Two, access is still a problem. Only a third of the students say their schools offer opportunities to learn coding and more than half say they would like to see more.

In 2016, Noel was working at a science and engineering summer camp. She ran the same program for an all-girls group versus a group that was mixed.

Her observation? “The girls were so much more outspoken when it was just them. When they’re with the guys, they were much more isolated and not talking.”

Flanagan says the group’s experience has shown that, given the opportunity to code and program and use technology, they love it, they engage with it, they are as good as the boys.

In her own life, Noel found that “just having those girls with you gives you the

confidence to speak up and say, ‘Hey, my ideas are worth something.’”

There is a strong case for offering coding education in and outside of school, especially to girls and children from lower-income and lower-education households, the survey reports.

Those surveyed were a random sample weighted across several demographic considerations – by geography, by income base, equality in terms of gender, immigration status and where kids are born and where the parents are born.

While there is some Indigenous representation in the random survey, Actua will be facilitating a separate survey with Indigenous audiences later this year, Flanagan says, “because we wanted that piece of work to be Indigenous-led and Indigenous-driven.”

Why does representation matter in what are considered neutral categories of digital skills?

“Because,” Noel says, “you don’t move forward if you’re constantly sharing the same opinions.”

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity.

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