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Reflections during Women’s History Month 2016

Evening the Playing Field in Education and STEM

Since 1987, March has been Women’s History Month, an occasion to bring awareness and reflection to the extraordinary accomplishments of women and their influence in shaping our country and our collective future. Women have reached great heights as entrepreneurs, leaders in industry, medicine, academia, and in service at top levels of government—we may even see a woman reach the highest office in the land in our next election. During Women’s History Month, it is important to honor women who have been trailblazers and broken through barriers.

While commemorative periods like Women’s History Month serve as reminders of great achievement, I think we can all agree that there is still much left to accomplish for the good of our children and nation. I believe it is important to continue to work toward eliminating the need for trailblazing and barrier breaking in regard to gender or otherwise. We all benefit when a person’s potential is intentionally cultivated and realized. Each of us should be afforded the opportunity to achieve our full potential and make meaningful contributions throughout our lifetimes.

This vision will be realized only when a quality education is equally accessible to every learner, no matter their gender, ethnicity, where they live, or their economic status. All learners are important, but an area of keen concern for me is enabling girls and women to make their mark in STEM fields. That requires consciously and deliberately supporting girls, and particularly girls of color, to develop the mathematics understanding and proficiency needed for success in the 21st century economy.

Unconscious Gender Bias in Mathematics Instruction and Performance

Let us touch on one area that is subtle, yet can make a profound impact in the way girls learn and achieve. While there have been improvements, and many girls and women are now making their mark in mathematics and science, a meta-analysis of gender differences in math performance reveals that girls can still face unconscious bias and stereotyping. A 2015 study specifically focused on gender bias and its effect on girls’ mathematics achievement, and more importantly, how it effects female student enrollments in advanced courses in high school.

David and Myra Sadker and Karen R. Zittleman illuminate some of the subtle yet profound ways that bias can disrupt girls’ mathematics learning in Still Failing at Fairness, How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It, and in a related paper about gender fairness and teacher training.

They found that teachers spend up to two-thirds of their time talking to male students, and that while they do acknowledge girls, they praise and encourage boys. They spend more time prompting boys to look for deeper answers as they reward girls for being quiet. Boys are more frequently called to the front of the class for demonstrations. When teachers ask questions, they direct their gaze toward boys more often. The essential point is that teachers in the study thought they treated students equally—until they saw video of their class interactions. These kinds of biases could contribute to why the United States has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in math and science performance. In 2014, the number of girls, blacks, and Hispanic children taking computer science AP tests reached a new low.

Providing Quality Education and Opportunity for All Learners

I bring up this information not to dwell on the negative, but to do what we all must do first to effect change: raise awareness. Expanding opportunities for women and girls in STEM fields, which is of national concern and a topic I have written about in Closing the STEM Gap for Girls, is a reachable goal. Like the teachers in the gender-bias study who were able to change their behavior once it was brought to light, with understanding come positive changes. In the case of teacher gender bias, one solution is to provide pre-service training in this area, and professional development to even the playing field in the classroom.

The solution we focus on at DreamBox Learning is the use of educational technology to break down barriers for all students, girl or boy, rich or poor, and in every zip code. It is available anytime, anywhere. As a competency-based solution, it allows students to be involved in their own acquisition and demonstration of knowledge through the use of technology with the support of their learning guardians.

By providing the right digital tools and equitable access, we can satisfy the natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge that all children have, and foster a lifelong love of learning for math, science, or any other area—to unlock their learning potential and in doing so, unleash their innate human capabilities. Every learner should be well equipped to embrace their interest in STEM-related careers and effectively close gender and equity gaps.

Today, women make up more than half of our workforce and are the majority of students in higher education. By providing girls and young women with the support they need in mathematics and the sciences in their school years, I see a future when during Women’s History Month we will be honoring women who have fulfilled the promise of technology/STEM to empower individuals and communities, and democratize opportunity for others. If we can achieve this, we can advance the vision and promise of America for all Americans.