While best known for its light shows, Vivid is much more and is best seen as a grand sharing of bright ideas. Humans have always been drawn towards the light, once from campfires and now from LEDs and lasers. In this tradition Sydney has become a beacon that brings people together and sparks conversations. Most recently the conversation centred on the topic of girls in tech and what might be done to re-dress the gender balance in STEAM subjects and related career pathways. Sponsored by INTEL this Vivid Ideas event drew a mix of entrepreneurs, educators and tech luminaries to the Museum of Contemporary Art on a Saturday afternoon to share their ideas on what might be done.
Given the place that the STEAM disciplines and mindset are predicted to play in our not distant futures, conversations about equity of participation are critical. The gender imbalance is well documented and yet it is also well known that girls are as capable as boys in these disciplines and bring alternative perspectives and understandings that are important if we are to uncover diverse solutions. (A more complete coverage of this aspect of the discussion is presented here) What is needed now is a close analysis of the reasons why girls do not choose a STEAM pathway and what might be done to alter this.
Kate Burleigh of Intel is the sort of role model needed. She shared with the audience and many young girls present stories from her youth. Stories of playing with Lego, tinkering with toy trains and using her imagination to invent and make. For Kate as for so many people who go on to pursue careers in technology making, imagination and play went hand in hand. However, despite similar interests and patterns of play at an early age, as girls enter their teenage years their interest in these endeavours declines. New patterns emerge and while boys persist with playing with technology and link its use to their imaginings of how the world may be bettered girls look elsewhere. As described in ‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’ by Archer et al (2013) ‘an underpinning construction of science careers as ‘clever’/‘brainy’, ‘not nurturing’ and ‘geeky’ sits in opposition to the girls’ self-identifications as ‘normal’, ‘girly’, ‘caring’ and ‘active’.’ Kate is therefore somewhat unique in that she returned to her technology interests.
Kate offers the following advice on the possibilities of technology careers to young girls considering their futures:
- With technology you can be deeply creative - You can create the future
- In a technology career you can solve problems - important problems in diverse fields
- Technology can help people reach their full potential, it is as much about human relations and human potential as another field
- You can get paid very well - Your skills will be in high demand
- Technology careers are everywhere and across domains, you can pursue a technology career and maintain your broad interests
Kate shared with the audience the story of Intel’s work to save the worlds bee populations. Declining bee numbers could be catastrophic putting our food supplies and the life of all things at risk. Bees play a vital role in pollination and Intel is using their technical expertise to better understand the factors resulting in declining numbers. Such stories of technology companies innovating around beautiful questions such as ‘How might we protect the worlds bee population?’ reveal a potential career path that has a much greater relevance and meaning than might be imagined. Beyond the work in clean rooms and laboratories technologists can make a real difference and this message needs to be shared with girls and by women like Kate.
For teachers and parents understanding the part we play in shaping girls choices is important too. The messages that we send about what is girly and what is not, about what makes a suitable learning journey and about where our girls should pursue excellence all act to shape the choices that they make. While we may state a belief that STEAM is a good choice for all young people we contradict this message in other ways. Much of the conversation centred around these messages, the subtle hidden messages we send girls that shape their imagining of what is possible. A Google search of images of engineers uncovers much of this bias; a belief that engineers are boys.
The perceptions that girls have are in part shaped by their experiences in schools. While boys in STEAM classrooms exhibit a brash overconfidence in their abilities girls are more likely to take a slower approach. Where boys throw themselves into the task and learn as they go girls are more likely to stand back and seek a more complete understanding of the process and skills before beginning. The differences in approach do not complete better results although they can result in different solutions; however, they do result in a perception from girls that boys are better at STEAM. This suggests that strategies which make the different approaches visible while showing how each is valid and worth celebrating might allow girls to better understand their potential within STEAM disciplines. This calls for building relationships and collaborations between girls and boys which promote an understanding of the differences which exist between individuals in how they approach problems.
The concluding remarks from the panelists resonated with a clear and positive message for girls looking towards a STEAM career. Be bold, be brave, be fearless. Celebrate your epic wins and look to the positive role models you have to inspire you. Accept that failure is a part of learning and that taking responsible risks can lead to success. That so many young girls were in the audience with their supportive mothers and fathers was joyous to see and a positive sign that little by little the perception of what is 'girly, sexy and glamorous' might be changing.
Listen to the Podcast of this event thanks to 'Teacher's Education Review'
By Nigel Coutts