Breaking Down the Gender Bias
‘Early detection of gender bias in children’s selection of educationally valuable activities could reveal insights as to how gendered patterns of expertise evolve in the histories of boys’ and girls’
Alloway J. and King J. 1991. P 41.
We have come a long way from the days of the Jane Austen, however, gender bias is still alive and very much an issue in the intellectual development of our children today. Over recent years, the debate over the role of gender has explored the impact on the development of particular skills and understandings aligned with specific genders. However, little has changed, as children as young as five are making judgements based on their worth and intellectual ability. As we move forward, what is the impact of gender bias on our girls, particularly their spatial reasoning and the impact this has in the area of STEM?
Gender bias refers to the support of one gender over another. Having grown up in a family of five girls, my father a town planner and my mother a teacher, I lived in what would perhaps say was a progressive learning environment, we played with dolls, as much as we played with Lego, explorations outside were always supported through animated discussions about what we had found and the science around it. However, it wasn’t until I stepped outside my house that I realised that this was not the case for all of my friends. From going fishing, to playing with matchbox cars and even the Lego that I loved, these activities were for boys. My schooling was no different, the boys were the ones good at maths and puzzles, I was supposed to read and colour in. While at home puzzles and Lego was still encouraged, I began to disengage from it at school, as it was not ‘play’ for girls. Current research continues to support this understanding 20 years on. A study conducted by psychologists at NYU, found that as young as five children associated brilliance and intelligence with boys, and girls would rather select activities based on effort rather than challenge in fear of failure over the boys (Bian, Leslie, Cimpian, 2017). Our youngest learners are underestimating their ability based on gender bias. Girls are beginning to withdraw from maths and science subjects, and beginning to doubt their ability to challenge themselves at the very young age of six, that is girls in their very first year in formal education.
Dr. Javid Abdelmoneim in conjunction with the BBC, explored this concept further through a social experiment where he dressed toddlers up as the opposite sex (2017). Unknowingly the adults that interacted with these children selected toys based on the visible gender, a doll for a girl, and a robot for a boy. Adults interactions highlighted our predisposition to discuss feelings and appearance with girls, and the mechanics of toys for boys. The use of scientific, mathematical language to discuss their thinking supported the development of the boys’ spatial reasoning, that is, the ability to think and manipulate 3D objects mentally. From as young as birth, gender bias towards maths and science is occurring. Jamie Jirot’s study also explained that as a result of boys engaging with toys these particular toys, including, Lego, K’NEX and other construction based materials assisted their development of higher order executive functioning skills (2015). Skills, that as an adult enable us to navigate the world around us, from reading maps to putting together pieces of furniture, from determining the symbol and unknown side of a cube to simple mechanical functions. All of these are essential when working in the subject area of STEM. Jirot (2015), made additional links between the development of strong spatial understandings and the underrepresentation of females in STEM related fields. He asserts that the need for developing strong spatial reasoning in early primary school is essential to the development of all children but, in particular girls.
A few years back, following some personal research about engaging girls in science, I was inspired by the work of a female engineer Debbie Sterling. A graduate from Stanford University, she shocked both herself and her family by completing her degree in the field of Engineering. In her TED talk (2013), she explained that only 14% of engineers worldwide are females, and yet engineers are developing ideas and products for both males and females. She did not understand the under representation. However through her study she found that her spatial reasoning and understandings where grossly underdeveloped compared to that of her male counterparts. While her classmates had played with construction-based toys, she had played with dolls, books, and other stereotypical toys. Upon her graduation she continued to be concerned by the lack of engineers in the field, she actively explored ways in which she could ‘disrupt the pink aisle’ (Sterling, 2013).
Sterling set about researching ways in which she could engage girls to understand the gender bias and work to assist girls in developing their spatial understandings. The journey she took was an explosive one, one that has changed the way we see girls’ toys today. Sterling met with girls all over America to examine ways she could engage them in engineering while building their spatial skills. In her initial observations, she found girls soon became bored with the traditional construction toys and when asked what they would like to do, the girls would answer, to read. Sterling realised that these were male-marketed construction toys and if she was to make a change, she needed to include both spatial and verbal aspects to engage a female audience. From here, she created GoldieBlox, which follows the story Goldie, an aspiring engineer, who invents amazing things while learning engineering concepts as well as developing spatial skills. The company’s motto is ‘Girls are more than princesses’ which was reflected in their 2014 Super Bowl advertisment. She launched the prototype as a Kickstarter, which skyrocketed to her inventions sold around the world. Sterling was awarded Toy of the Year in 2015 as well as being recognised as a ‘Living Legacy’ for her work in inspiring girls from the National Women’s History Museum.
Therefore, is it as simple as buying a set of GoldieBlox or Lego Friends set for our girls to play with? Of course not! As Jirot states, girls are not concerned about the colour of the construction material. They need to see themselves as capable, as worthy to engage with these toys. As adults, we need to provide opportunities for girls to engage with toys and learning experiences that support the development of their spatial understandings. Playing with puzzles, building cubby houses, helping outside in the garden, even in Dad’s shed are not just learning opportunities that should only be offered to boys. Girls need these to assist not only in their executive functioning, but to build their self-concept. In doing so we develop role models for them to showcase, what they are capable of. We need to break down the gender bias and allow our girls to be the best that they can be in all areas of their development.