Do Girls Really Belong in STEM?
By Francheska Dobyns, Anita Kreide, and Alex Ross
Our first article in the series explored student voice on DEI through reflections on their pre undergraduate STEM experiences. For this second series current high school STEM student voices are amplified, speaking to the notion of marginalized voices needing to be honored and brought to the forefront of the classroom experience. This article spotlights one high school girl’s story, Francheska Dobyns, and offers concrete recommendations for student DEI support.
The definition of marginalized identities includes, but is not limited to: women+; Black, Indigenous, & People of Color (BIPOC); LGBTQIA+ folks, neurodiverse, raciolinguistic, and disabled people.
Framing Student Voice
As you read Francheska's experience, look for the opportunity for your own student voices to emerge. How can you uplift, authentically listen, and give space to your students through their own stories?
"It is more impressive for a woman to become successful in STEM," shouted Brianna, a senior in my AP Spanish class as we discussed gender gaps in different occupations.
The whole class disagreed and gave her a confused look. She struggled to find her words and explain her thoughts, but I knew what she meant. It is more impressive for a woman to become successful in STEM, not because women aren’t as capable as men, but because of the overall lack of diversity in the STEM field. I knew what Brianna was talking about because I had experienced the discrimination that comes with being a woman in STEM.
During my freshman year, I struggled in my chemistry honors class. I could blame it on my several absences due to getting the Coronavirus and missing two weeks of school, and then, not too long after that, getting a severe cold and missing another two weeks. But that was not the whole reason. Yes, I had become sick and fallen behind, but once I came back to school, I found myself struggling to ask for help. Out of all the freshmen in my class, there were two girls, and I was one of them. Unfortunately for me, upon my return, the other freshman girl whom I usually asked for help was not in school as COVID had gotten another victim. So, I asked a few of the freshmen boys in my class if they could help me catch up. The response I got was, "How do you not know this stuff, it’s so easy?" I asked another student, who was arguably the best in the class, and he responded, "Were you too busy doing your makeup to know what was going on?" I was shocked and hurt by his response. Would he have given me this treatment if I was a boy? Most emphatically not. You may be wondering, "Why not ask the teacher for help? I did, and he tried his best to help me, but in his explanations, he used very complex vocabulary and assumed I had already caught up on all the work I had missed. I also completely disregarded the choice to report my peers for the disrespect shown to me in class as I was scared to be labeled a “snitch”, someone who can’t take a joke, or untrustworthy as when a woman calls out inappropriate “humor” she’s seen as too serious or not fun.
The stress from chemistry was building up. I had missed a test while I was gone and had to make it up, but I had no clue what I was doing. So I decided to try again and went to my chemistry class before school started. I was scared and began to tear up as I asked for help; sympathetically, my teacher offered to help me after school. But he had a robotics club to chaperone, so I had to meet him there for help.
As I entered the classroom, silence filled the air. Everyone in the room was a boy, except for one girl who sat in the back left corner of the very open classroom. I walked to the back of the classroom as instructed by my teacher and waited for him to finish teaching the club members. Several groups were working on different robots, and the girl was alone. She sat quietly and worked on her robot with not much assistance from anyone else. She was isolated. Not one boy in the class was interested in helping her. She looked my way, and I smiled at her. I wondered why she was alone and if I was misinterpreting the situation because of my poor experience with boys in science. I received help from my teacher and took the test I had missed about two weeks later.
After I took the test, the freshmen boys in my class accused me of bribery and asked how I convinced my teacher to give me that much time to prepare for the test. To this day they still joke about this incident whenever they see me. The rest of chemistry during my freshman year wasn’t bad, but I found myself too intimidated and afraid to ask for help from my peers. Along with this intimidation, there was the lingering fear of being discriminated against solely because of my gender, a factor in my life over which I had no control.
Today, I’ve found myself doing very well in my AP Biology class as a sophomore. One of the factors in this class that has fostered my success is the diverse and welcoming environment of the classroom. Not only has my teacher been understanding and very kind but she has also done her best to make science interesting and inclusive through her lessons and open conversations with her students.
Recommendations for Educators
My experience in chemistry taught me a lot about the discrimination women must face in their professional and personal lives. However, the change in environment from my freshman to sophomore year science classes was quite different and helped me identify what many students might need in science classrooms to succeed. With both my experiences in mind, the suggestions I have for high school teachers in the STEM field are as follows:
1. Educate students about various STEM figures
- Incorporate stories of STEM figures who are or were people of color, LGBTQIA+, neurodiverse, and/or disabled into the curriculum. A great way to do this is to find scientific or mathematical discoveries by diverse figures and connect them to the material you are learning about in class.
- Students can research different figures in STEM and the important discoveries they've made as a project (even if it's just for extra credit) and create a poster, presentation, essay, etc. about who they researched.
2. Call out inequality in the classroom.
- Discuss the lack of diversity in STEM and facilitate conversations about why there is a gender or race gap in this field.
- Discuss sexism, racism, and overall discrimination and make it known that those things are not tolerated inside and outside of the classroom.
- Make it clear that ALL students are supported, and encourage more conversations (both private and public) about the inequality or discrimination they face.
3. Recognize that every student has different needs.
- Just because every student has the same resources, it does not mean they are all going to be able to utilize and apply these resources to their education. Take the time to provide different resources for different types of learners or incorporate several different teaching strategies (visual, auditory, reading/writing, etc.) into your lessons.
- Make your classroom a safe space for students who struggle academically. Let it be known that if a student is struggling, your classroom is a safe space to talk about it. Be understanding if a student is struggling; sometimes school is a lot, and every student has a different learning capacity. You don’t need to be flexible when it comes to turning in work, but be aware that student burnout is real and that the goal of education is to challenge students, not to burn them out or harm their mental health.
The personal experience shared above shows how each student is unique in their intersectionality, lens, and recommendations for support. It is important to understand that each individual will not share the same feelings or insights, but this very idea highlights the importance of getting to know the stories of all students to cultivate an environment of care and learning in the classroom. This approach, as noted by our student’s story and suggestions above, is a direct antidote to the stereotypical “proving ground mentality” where language and expertise are weaponized in the STEM classroom. Instead student advocacy and voice fosters disruption of the traditional STEM narrative, ushering in inclusive outcomes for all.
Marginalized Identities in Physics & Astronomy (MIPA) at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). (2020, September). Statement on Intersectionality. UC Los Angeles Marginalized Identities in Physics & Astronomy. https://mipa.pa.ucla.edu/