The following is an opinion blog by a Girl Up Club leader and part of a blog series leading up to International Day of the Girl on October 11.
By: Roshni Padhi
As I enter the competition room and scan my surroundings, I am struck with a heavy realization— less than 25% of the people around me are girls. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. Math competitions are infamous for harboring a vast gender disparity, along with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) classes at schools. The imbalanced gender ratio in such fields is a massive concern that not only disadvantages females, but also dooms our world to rely on only half of its talent to solve its most important problems.
Where does this issue begin? There is no research that indicates that girls are biologically inferior to boys in regard to STEAM, but by middle school, most girls are already convinced that math and science are not for them. The media is primarily responsible for this through its portrayal of female characters as secondary to the strong male lead. Moreover, it is extremely unusual for this female to be even vaguely intellectual – she prides herself solely on her perfect looks.
People all around the world unconsciously absorb these messages. Girls themselves fall into the trap of needing to be seen as perfect, thereby refusing to take risks and fail in order to learn. They decide to not venture into the seemingly daunting realm of STEAM. Some entrepreneurs that recognize this gender disparity try to fix it but only end up exacerbating it – coding websites that try to empower girls by having them design their own nail polish reinforce the prejudice that girls should only value STEAM insofar as it relates to their physical appearance.
This forces girls to devalue their intellectual contributions. They begin to think that boys are smarter and more successful than them – they lose confidence in themselves and their abilities. This lack of confidence manifests itself in the scarcity of girls on awards stages. When I won fourth place in my state’s math contest, someone said to me, “Wow, you did so well, despite being a girl!” I was absolutely appalled. What makes someone say “despite being a girl?” Why is being a girl something to overcome on the way to success rather than a characteristic to embrace? By accepting this mindset, we both discourage girls with promising potential and actively mark STEAM as a male-only arena.
The only way to break this vicious cycle is through inspirational role models that intercept negative stereotypes at a very young age. We must empower younger girls by showing them that girls can be successful in STEAM, and that a girl is defined by more than her appearance. This can take place through mentorship programs, STEAM classes aimed at young girls, and the proliferation of positive role models that combat misperceptions. This is where our #GIRLHERO STEAM leaders such as Katherine Johnson, NASA Engineer or my fellow Girl Up Club members who participated in the 2017 WiSci Girls STEAM Camp in Malawi come in.
Sustainable Development Goal #4 is quality education, followed by #5 gender equality. All 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved if and when girls are included in the STEAM conversation and receive the appropriate tools to follow their dreams. This International Day of the Girl I urge you to mentor a younger girl who wants to learn more about STEAM, reach out to your female science teachers and tell her she’s a #GIRLHERO and lastly, continue to be great in your science and math class – no matter how challenging it may be. There’s so many more ways we can encourage girls and women to enter STEAM careers and it starts with you and me.
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Roshni Padhi, 16-years-old, is the President of the UC Lab Girl Up Club at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Chicago, IL.