Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai founded MathsThroughStories.org, a non-profit research-based initiative which sets out to encourage teachers and parents globally to help children learn mathematics more effectively and, equally important, more enjoyably through storytelling. The website offers various evidence-based and freely available resources, including support for children to make their own stories. One of the research projects he leads, Representation of Girls and Women in Mathematics-specific Picturebooks, finds that female characters are significantly underrepresented in mathematical picturebooks when compared to their male counterparts.
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your research that led to this project? In particular, why is it important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in learning mathematics through storytelling?
MathsThroughStories.org draws from a body of research over the past three decadesthat highlights pedagogical benefits of teaching mathematical concepts through storytelling, particularly in the form of story-picture books. One of these research projects has been conducted in a few different countries (including England, Ireland, and Malta). It is an investigation into teachers’ self-reported frequency of using story-picture books in their mathematics instruction as well as their perceived barriers to (and perceived enablers for) the integration of stories in mathematics teaching. A key finding is that while early years practitioners regularly make use of storytelling as part of their daily mathematics teaching, teachers of primary (elementary) school children (5-11 years old) are much less aware of such teaching approach. The principal reported barrier is the lack of awareness (and hence pedagogical knowledge) of how story-picture books can be incorporated into mathematics teaching. Thus, MathsThroughStories.org wants to help raise teachers’ awareness in this area, and to essentially encourage them in giving this approach a go.
In terms of why it is important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in mathematical stories, I draw from the idea of Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada and Ross (1972),that picture books are read to children when they are most impressionable and when they are forming their self-images and future expectations of themselves. Imagine a classroom where the teacher only reads mathematical stories where boys and men are always the protagonist solving problems using their mathematical knowledge and skills, while girls and women are secondary characters lurking behind a tree. If you are a girl listening only to stories with such characteristics, how would you see yourself in relation to mathematics now and in the future? Thus, as educators and parents, we need to critically examine what otherwise seems to be a very colourful, cute and harmless educational resource.
In a New England pub after a conference, our male academic colleagues shrug their collective shoulders at the gender imbalance; in their opinion, women drop out of science because their hormones make them “different”. As women in science know all too well, similar examples of bias abound in academia. We read with familiar dismay, therefore, the arguments that girls find science “boring,” that attempts to bridge the gender divide “deny human biology and nature,” and that efforts to achieve gender equality in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are doomed. Attributing the gender gap to biology misses the obvious contribution of societal and institutional biases.
The “girls are not interested in STEM” mantra is itself an example. Knowledge of a prejudicial stereotype can lead to enough anxiety that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although initially applied to racial bias in IQ tests, ‘stereotype threat’ can be extended to gender as well. Negative stereotypes are transmitted from parents and teachers to girls. Reminding girls that they are girls just before a math test can impede their performance. This effect can be seen in children as young as age five. The key point is that as adults, we are able to view stereotypes as generalisations about a group. Unfortunately, young children are more accepting of stereotypes, and may implicitly believe that girls are indeed poor at STEM subjects. As girls grow up, these stereotypes affect their identities as STEM professionals. So how do these stereotypes take shape?
The Draw a Scientist Test (DAST) shows that science stereotypes are socialised from an early age. The test has its origins in a pilot study from 1957, in which high school students were asked to describe their image of a scientist. Subsequent research from the 1960s onwards has examined a timeline of when this image is cemented. This research finds that children in kindergarten and the first grade are less likely to draw a stereotypical scientist; that is, a White man with facial hair, who wears a lab coat and glasses, and who is surrounded by lab equipment, formulae and books, making a “Eureka!” style exclamation. By the second grade, however, “the stereotype has began to take root,” due to a combination of how science is taught at school as well as through media images and social ideas and expectations that children pick up from parents, teachers and other influences. By the fifth grade, the stereotype is overwhelmingly fixed. A review study of 50 years worth of international research on the DAST demonstrates that, across cultures, “the stereotype of scientists being male has largely endured since 1957.” More specifically, the research shows that in Western cultures, this image is of a White male, even amongst minority students. However, children exposed to female scientists, via a combination of visits by women scientists in the classroom and by talks and readings about women’s contribution to science and their careers, are more likely to draw both women and men as scientists. Studies demonstrate that teachers themselves can contribute to these stereotypes, by giving boys more attention in class, and by rating their abilities higher than girls, even when girls get the same test scores as boys. Conversely, “intervention programs” for teachers, including career information and weekly visits by women researchers to the classroom, as well as short courses with follow-up visits, are subsequently less likely to result in stereotypical DAST results amongst students. This is because the teacher’s bias has been actively addressed, leading to the reinforcement of diversity in their teaching.
Despite the fact that people are socialised into believing that girls can’t do science, popular culture blames the individual; young girls are often chastised Don’t get your dress dirty, or Be careful, why don’t you hand that to your brother, as a recent viral video reminded us. If only girls were more confident. If only girls spoke up and asked more questions in class. If only they actively looked for mentors. Then they could easily overcome this stereotype threat and perform just as well as boys in STEM subjects. Unfortunately this “leaning in” viewpoint is naive because it ignores the institutional disadvantages contributing to the academic exclusion of women and minorities.
Sexual harassment is widespread in academic fieldwork. Women trainees are the primary targets with the perpetrators being predominantly senior professional males. Female undergraduates in male dominated fields report higher levels of sex discrimination, and are more likely to consider changing majors. Another study showed that high-achieving male biologists train fewer women than men in their laboratories, and that these men predominantly fill Assistant Professor slots in academia. In the same study, biomedical science male postdocs are 90% more likely than women to have an adviser who is a Nobel laureate. Not only is there a ‘leaky pipeline’ problem, the plumbing itself is broken.
It is social conditioning, unconscious biases and institutional practices that create an environment where girls feel unwelcome and insecure in STEM fields. UNESCO data show that women are disadvantaged in STEM, with only one in five nations achieving equality. But the cultural variation in itself tells us that it is socialisation and policy intervention, not biology, that matters. Research shows that institutional gender bias develops in several phases. First, children lack female scientist role models from primary school. Second, young undergraduates learn that science privileges a masculine culture, which makes it hard to imagine their career path. Third, diversity barriers are witnessed first-hand by early career researchers. Both male and female faculty are less willing to hire women applicants with the same credentials as men. Given these clear prejudices, we must move away from lazy explanations that attribute women’s under-representation in STEM to their biology. Instead, we must acknowledge that the system actively discourages women in ways both obvious and insidious. We must move away from the individual and address the broader narrative of everyday sexism.
Practical ways to tackle this problem include diversity training for hiring committees and better mentorship programmes for female graduate students and postdocs. Another avenue for change is to address stereotypes and their effects. Research mapping neurophysiology during tests on STEM subjects show that there are no cognitive differences in men and women’s performance in tests until stereotype threat is triggered. Women perform comparably well until they are reminded about their gender, at which point their working memory and performance are negatively impacted. When girls and women are made aware of their minority status, they become hypervigilant about negative feedback, discouraging them despite their success, even if they are high achievers. Professor Chad Forbes is a social neuroscientist from the University of Delaware who studies the impact of negative stereotypes on individuals. One aspect of his research is looking at different ways to combat stereotype threat. The most effective strategy remains acknowledging and understanding the existence of stereotype threat and addressing its consequences, such as through training. Active intervention at the institutional level also leads to positive change. Already, some colleges are reporting huge improvements: at Carnegie Mellon University, 40% of undergraduate incoming class in computer science are women, a welcome contrast to the dismal 18% of graduates in the U.S., and at Harvey Mudd College, more than half of the freshman engineering class this year were women. Their strategies ranged from featuring women on their brochures and as tour guides, to training teachers and hosting camps for high school students.
Why should we care if girls remain underrepresented in STEM? Apart from basic fairness, if we want our best and brightest working on innovative ideas and creative solutions, it makes little sense to potentially abandon half the population. We already face many hurdles; lack of funding, lack of jobs, and pushback from science denialists backed by populist politics. We need all hands on deck to forge ahead.
We recently had a Panel discussion where we spoke to three ‘STEM Parents’ about how they support and encourage their children in STEM education, from pre-school, high school and college. Joining us was Professor Rajini Rao, Dr Bill Carter and Dr La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch. Watch the video or keep reading below for a summary!
Last week we had our second STEM Women Hangout, from the series How Men Can Help.
Our guest was Dr Yonatan Zunger who spoke to us about how leaders can work to be more inclusive of women in their teams. Yonatan is the chief architect of social at Google, and he is in charge of everything ‘social’ at the company. He has an academic background, with a PhD in string theory from Stanford University. He was kind enough to join our discussion as himself, and not in an official capacity representing Google. This is a topic he is very clearly passionate about, as you can see from the video below.
Last week, STEM Women launched our YouTube Channel. We’ll be hosting a fortnightly Hangout on Air series that is live streamed every second Sunday. Our show will cover four major themes:
In the Spotlight: Highlights women’s careers in STEM;
STEM Parents: Advice on how to encourage young girls interested in studying STEM subjects;
Finding Solutions: Organisations & programs that actively target recruitment, retention & promotion of women; and
How Men Can Help: Practical ways that men can support gender inclusion from junior to senior levels.
Our first guest was Professor Jonathan Eisen who chatted about how male academics can help better recruit, retain, and include their women colleagues. Jonathan is a molecular biologist at University of California (UC) Davis. He’s also the Academic Editor-in-Chief for PLOS Biology. On his blog and social media, as well as through his professional activities, Jonathan is a passionate advocate of gender equality in STEM. Below is a summary of our discussion, centred on gender diversity and participation within academic conferences.
Continuing our Role Models series, STEM Women team member and sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos shares how her primary school teachers and a series of children’s books inspired her scientific imagination. Reading stories of heroic women who used education and science to improve social justice helped Zuleyka see that girls, including those from minority groups who are denied rights, can and do make a positive impact on society.
The story of why I became interested in STEM starts when I migrated to Australia from Peru. I hadn’t yet turned eight and I didn’t speak any English. Thankfully, as luck would have it, we were enrolled into a highly progressive multicultural school in the inner city of Melbourne. My teachers, Mrs Rosa in Grade 3 and Miss Maria in Grade 4, worked hard to make non-English-speaking children like me feel included.
My teachers were amazing, celebrating every little task I mastered: from writing my first English sentence, to reading aloud to the class, to progressing through maths exercises. Our teachers took time to ensure that I did not get left behind. They also assigned us a tutor for extra English lessons for the first three months of school. They would look me in the eye and encourage me when I got the right answer, and I can remember once they stopped the class to announce that I has written a great short story. With small and large gestures, they imbued me with the courage and motivation to keep learning despite the language barrier. (more…)