A key idea through this section is looking at the ways in which our school environments influence girls’ self-concepts and stereotypical views of STEM subjects and careers. Girls typically want to perceive themselves in a certain way; for example, as collaborative, caring, creative, and socially and environmentally conscious. STEM and STEM role models on the other hand, are often portrayed as solitary, geeky, boring, abstract and theoretical – the opposite of the ways girls want to be perceived!
Teachers can employ gender-inclusive classroom strategies to challenge this perception of STEM. Creating an inclusive STEM classroom environment requires providing gender-neutral learning opportunities, challenging stereotypes, supporting girls’ self-concepts and encouraging a growth mindset. These strategies have been shown to support not just girls, but all students
There a range of tools teachers can use to remove gender bias from their own classrooms, teach students about gender bias, and influence whole school approaches to gender bias.
Tools to create a gender-neutral classroom
A gender-neutral learning environment is not necessarily one that is gender-free. Rather it is an environment in which teachers and learners avoid gender stereotyping and aim to ensure all learners are appreciated, respected and treated equally.
A good place to start is by creating gender-inclusive physical and virtual teaching spaces.
Even something as simple as classroom decor has been found to have an impact on girls’ decision to pursue STEM subjects (Master, Cheryan & Meltzoff, 2016).
Start by auditing your current spaces. What might the images, resources and set up of the space say to students about the way you perceive STEM and who is encouraged to engage with STEM in your classroom. Ask yourself:
- Is this space equally inviting for all genders?
- Is STEM represented as a creative, collaborative and diverse field?
- Are diverse STEM professionals represented visually in the classroom? What are they doing in those representations? Are the women represented demonstrating activity, independence and achievement?
It’s not just about ensuring equal representation - you can also actively challenge gender stereotypes about STEM through your selection of images, quotes and role models.
If you think you need to address gender balance in your classroom environment, check out the GiST poster series featuring Australian women in STEM, or these sites for free posters:
Next, look more closely at the resources you use in your classroom. Review the books, videos, websites, apps and role models you feature in your teaching. Ensure you are presenting students with a view that accurately represents a diversity of STEM professionals.
Girls do better on science tests when their textbooks include images of female scientists (Good, Woodzicka & Wingfield).
It is important to have gender-balanced resources that feature:
- an equal number of girls and boys studying STEM subjects
- an equal number of women and men in STEM professional roles
- an equal number of women and men in active or leadership roles
- gender-neutral colours and design motifs.
It’s not just how our classrooms look, it’s also what happens within them. What we say, how we say it, who we call on to speak, and how we understand what students say all contribute to how we perpetuate or challenge gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.
Use the self-evaluation template to evaluate your classroom interactions.
- Do you expect different behaviour from boys and girls?
- Do you make assumptions about what type of curriculum content or contexts boys and girls prefer?
- Do you label individuals as naturally good at a subject?
- Do you describe subjects as difficult?
- Do you have equal expectations of girls and boys?
Tools to teach students about gender bias
While we can actively create inclusive classrooms, students also encounter bias and stereotypes outside of school. Teaching students to recognise bias and stereotypes can help combat implicit messages about diversity in STEM. You could try:
- Identifying and challenging gender stereotypes when you encounter them in classroom resources, e.g. provide counter examples of people students may be familiar with
- Pointing out the gender implications of using the term ‘guys’ to address everyone, or phrases like ‘you catch like a girl’ or ‘man up’ and discuss alternatives
- Noticing when women are underrepresented in STEM resources and create opportunities for students to ‘fill the gaps’, e.g. creating their own biographies of female engineers
- Finding opportunities to show students how gender perceptions have changed over time
You could even consider engaging students in a review of your classroom and its resources. As a class you could discuss your findings and create an action plan to improve it.
Tools to address gender bias around the school
How well is your school supporting girls to engage with STEM? A good way to approach this question is to start with the data. For each year level at your school, evaluate whether proportional numbers of girls are engaging with STEM activities or selecting STEM subjects. This data will also provide a good baseline to evaluate the success of changes in your school’s approach to gender equality.Once you have some baseline data, look a little more deeply:
- Check activity and subject guides. Are STEM activities and subjects described in a way that would appeal equally to girls and boys? Do images of the activity or subject feature actively engaged girls?
- How do teachers across the school talk about STEM subjects and careers? Do they have gender stereotyped views of subjects and pathways?
- What images are used in association with STEM around the school? Check noticeboards, school newsletters, brochures and the school website. How are girls and boys represented doing STEM? Who is actively engaged? Who is taking a leadership role? Are girls more likely to be represented engaging in one particular STEM subject than another?
- Who speaks about STEM activities in year level or school assemblies? Are girls taking leadership roles?
- Is there gender balance in invited speakers or facilitators?
Showcasing inventions by women in their enrolment campaign enabled Singapore University of Technology and Design to increase its intake of women from 15 to 45 per cent. See the 2012 campaign here.