A look into the girls - or lack of girls - involved in engineering extracurriculars
December 17, 2017
At the end of her freshman year, senior Maria Tu started teaching herself the Java programming language just for fun. As someone who has always enjoyed solving problems, programming naturally intrigued her. She discovered programming club during her sophomore year. Two years later, she is co-president and the sole female in the club.
The male majority has spurred Tu’s recent efforts to recruit more girls, but they can’t be found in the AP Computer Science A class. Mimicking the disparities between female and male participants in programming club, only four girls are enrolled in the course this year.
“A lot of girls, for some reason, just don’t end up taking the CS classes here, or anywhere,” Tu said. “So they’re not exposed to it and they don’t know that they might enjoy it. It represents how the industry is right now. But I know a lot more girls are getting into it so I’m hopeful about that.”
According to computerscience.org, though women currently represent 47% of the workforce, the percentage of women working in computer science-related professions has steadily declined since the 1990s, dropping from 35% to 25% in the last 15 years.
But in high schools across the nation, a drastic change is taking place to bridge this gender gap, stimulated by the introduction of AP Computer Science Principles. A partnership of the College Board with the nonprofit, Code.org, the course was designed to bring computer science education to students and schools with a lack of resources, particularly in urban and rural areas.
“The computer science principles course was in the design works for probably a decade with the intention of getting students of underrpresented populations more engaged with computer science,” computer science teacher Daniel Forhan said. “That includes girls, minorities and kids who would have probably never taken computer science otherwise.”
This effort has proved impactful. In the past year, female, black and Latino student participation in AP computer science exams have more than doubled, according to results released by Code.org. More than 29,700 female students took an AP computer science exam in 2017, a 135 percent increase from 2016, and an even larger increase from the 2,600 female students that took the AP Computer Science exam 10 years ago.
Forhan introduced AP Computer Science principles this year, accumulating an enrollment of six girls.
“I felt like [this course] would be a good fit for this school, particularly because I’ve noticed in my career as a teacher, there weren’t a whole lot of girls who take computer science,” Forhan said. “Usually you get one or two in each class at most.”
According to Forhan, the course engages a variety of students with its focus on big ideas and activities that emphasize “process more than just solving.” Through a “less rigid” curriculum than AP Computer Science A, students in the class are challenged to think creatively when pursuing projects, such as designing apps, “so students from any kind of background can find their fit with this.”
“From a standpoint of doing the right thing, the fact that we haven’t been servicing this population is not right,” Forhan said. ‘There are so many open positions in computer science that need to be filled so we need everybody to have an opportunity. For us to let that population go by the wayside for so many years is an injustice. Teachers in schools need to address that and acknowledge its importance.”
Female leaders in FIRST robotics recount their perspective
For senior Tessa DesMarais, the robotics team has always been an inclusive environment. Since she first joined the club freshman year, there has been consistent female leadership. This year, she is a director of awards for the team. In her freshman and sophomore year, the team was lead by two girl captains, two girls and one boy their junior year and two girls and two boys this year.
And female participation only keeps increasing. With ten to 15 active girl members last year, around ten new girls showed up last month for the first team meeting. DesMarais and her teammates see the club as a micro-model of equality and inclusion that they hope would one day manifest in the real world.
But while the team – and the motto of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics – is built off of inclusivity, DesMarais has noticed that subtle gender gaps exist within. To start, there are no female engineering mentors.
“We’ve noticed a trend where the only female mentors who have been able to stay on the team are the ones who do the non-mechanical things, and the men are the only ones who actually work with their hands or even touch the robot or do programming,” DesMarais said. “So we don’t have any actual hands-on engineering female mentors, even though all of the female mentors would either have the capacity to or could learn how to pretty quickly.”
DesMarais questions the male dominance concentrated in the engineering portion of the club. She notes that while new female members this year seem interested in the mechanical side of robotics, female participants have previously contributed mostly to the awards, writing and business functions of the club.
“The question is, why is it that the non-robot kids happen to be 90 percent female?” DesMarais questioned. “Why do we all get herded into that corner? Because unless you’re on manipulator, you’re not working on the robot or programming if you’re a girl. It’s very rare to see a software girl or an electrical girl.”
At times, she has also recognized discernible cases of a diminishing female voice in the club.
“We’d walk into the room and say ‘we need to do this’ and people would just ignore us,” DesMarais said. “They wouldn’t even look.”
Her teammate, senior Samara Patterson, is another female leader in the club. As a director of outreach and business, she too has noticed another specific instance where a female voice was ignored, causing her to harbor similar frustrations as a female director in the club.
“Last year, we had an idea proposed by a girl on the awards team that was totally scratched and in the end we saw that very high-achieving teams had that original idea,” Patterson said. “It’s very unfortunate that their ideas are being disregarded because they’re some of the best out there.”
Personally, Patterson has also experienced moments where she felt her voice being ignored and disrespected by male counterparts.
“There are little things that you hear about every day,” Patterson said. “Men are convoluted in subtle ways, making comments. It happens. It’s a real thing and it’s very aggravating. It happens to me all the time and it’s so infuriating because I know what I’m doing. And I’ve been on this team for four years and some of these men that are younger than me feel that they have the right to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s really frustrating and that happens all the time in the workplace.”
Generally, DesMarais believes these cases are not fueled purely by sexism, due to the strong female leadership on the team. While few circumstances like the ones she cited may surface from time to time, the culture of the club has always emitted acceptance.
“There may be sexism in the real world, but once you spend a few months in team 1100, nobody cares and there’s a lot of respect and a real feeling of family, regardless of your sex, race or gender,” DesMarais said. “Nobody cares. You just go for it.”
Still, she emphasizes the importance of females gathering the courage to speak up, especially in STEM settings.
“Speaking up takes a lot of courage,” DesMarais said. “And I know, personally, it can be really difficult to speak into a room of very dominant boys – or girls – who know what they’re doing and have known what they’re doing for a long time. And you feel new and you feel like you don’t know what you’re saying, but if you have a good idea, you really don’t know how far that good idea can take you. And nobody else might ever have that idea. So you have to speak up and tell people. And your idea might spark someone else’s idea so it’s super important for everyone to speak up.”
Like DesMarais, Patterson also believes that their robotics club is lucky to have the “female voice” lacking in the STEM industry. She believes industry gender gaps exist because of a stigma people harbor “around girls in STEM and where they belong.”
“It’s not the girl’s fault,” Patterson said. “The girls are showing up every week and they’re putting in their hardest effort and they’re making great projects and they’re a really critical part of teams. Even though they’re in a STEM club, the stigma is still that they’re doing business things or they’re doing awards, writing, they’re never really mechanical. But I have been on this team for four years and my main focus has been strategy and engineering.”
In reference to workplaces where gender inequality persists, Patterson calls on male counterparts to start bridging the gap.
“I think that the ethics of men need to change,” Patterson said. “Unfortunately, it is the men that’s persisting on this idea that women aren’t as good or can’t do as much as they can, when you see on our team that is totally the opposite.”