Closeup of a slide staged on a microscope stand

Cultural Forces in Geek Inspiration

An interesting survey by an Indiana University science education researcher and Scientific American reported the following about what sparks people’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields:

Based on data from a randomized sample of universities and online volunteers who completed a survey, men and women who pursue STEM degrees tend to become interested in science in elementary school. When asked which people and experiences helped to spark their interest, women were more likely than men to select a teacher, a class at school, solving math problems and spending time outdoors, whereas men were more influenced by tinkering, building and reading. As men and women enter college, passion for the field far outweighs all other influences as the main reason for their persistence.

They have some nice graphical representations of their results as well, but it’s worth adding a bit of cultural context here.

“Tinkering” and “building” represent a broad class of activities that boys are pushed toward and girls are pushed away from. These activities can not only provide inspiration for STEM degrees, but also function as practice for laboratory work and problem solving, which is to say as practice for STEM degrees and careers. When Lego sets aimed at boys encourage more creativity and agency than Lego sets aimed at girls, there are real consequences down the line. It is great that so many men are lead to STEM degrees from tinkering and building. But unless we accept the lone tinkerer as an archetype for any gender, this path to a geeky career will be less likely for most women.

Two of the stronger factors for women entering STEM degrees, “a teacher” and “a class at school”, comprise structural external encouragement. It makes perfect sense that this would be more important for the under-represented gender in any field. If a girl doesn’t see people like her in a certain career, she may not consider it seriously as an option, unless she is directed there by something external like a class or a teacher. The good news here is that external factors can make a difference in bringing people to STEM careers, especially under-represented groups.

The largest percentage of respondents (38%) said that the drive to be in STEM came from “self”, and by the time college rolls around, “passion for the field” is the most popular reason to persist (three times as popular as the next three reasons). But still, these self-directed passionate scientists add up to less than half the total! For the rest of the group, and if we want to increase the number of women in STEM fields, it’s critical to have a culture that values science and mentors that seek out and encourage potential scientists.

11 thoughts on “Cultural Forces in Geek Inspiration

  1. Nina

    Great post, jessamyn. It’s good to hear that mentoring is a successful way to get more girls interested in science, considering most efforts have been aimed in that direction. Here’s hoping we can make some cultural adjustments, too!

  2. Julia

    I would ask a question: are the preferences influenced by certain activities in genders, or genders are likely to put more importance into certain activities? Such as, a girl might do both classes and tinkering, but would indicate she was influenced by teachers since tinkering is not a ‘girl’ thing. Why do girls always need excuses such as external factors to do what they want? No boy ever needs a ‘role model’ to become a cook, a teacher or a cloth designer.

    1. EROSE

      Well, I guess I’ll put it this way – I definitely tinkered and fooled around with science as a girl.
      I didn’t think of the things I liked to do so much as “science” when I was younger. The few science people in my childhood who might have clued me in and supported me either ignored me or were more than clear they didn’t have time for some little girl and her series of pet bugs. Plus, while I quietly got As in my higher math classes, I skipped a grade and got behind for a few years, so I (and the adults around me) long had the idea I couldn’t “get” math.
      I also happened to be really good with words and languages, and had a wealth of recognition and encouragement there. I was taught all my life to develop that and consider my bugs, rocks and homemade catapults as silly games.
      I was already an adult, out of college and trained in something else before I realized any of this. When you’re little, the way adults respond to you does have a huge impact and it can take a long time to see beyond it. I imagine men say it was their tinkering, but don’t see how early their world took that seriously and encouraged the impulse, where with a woman like me it was some silly little girl playing with bugs in her tomboy phase until it was far too late to turn back.

      1. K00kyKelly

        I had a similar interests as a girl. Tomboy phase, catching bugs and lizards, camping, soccer, erektor sets, lincoln log structures, making my sandcastles into elaborate water moving systems, etc. I remember a particular sandcastle I was building when my mom told me that I looked like a future engineer. I asked her to explain what it was because I had no idea. I don’t even remember the answer she gave as it’s been overwritten so many times by my own experiences.

        So maybe in little boys their play is tinkering and for little girls their play is just play. My parents identified this stuff to me as architecture, science, and engineering.

    2. Restructure!

      What sparked my interest in programming was a class I took. I wasn’t really allowed to tinker with my home computer, because it was our shared family computer and was considered expensive. However, I tinkered a lot with settings using the GUI, because you generally won’t break your computer by doing that.

      According to GNOME, “Girls, on average, typically receive their first computer at age 19, as opposed to boys at age 15.” If this is the case, then it makes sense that boys are more likely to “tinker” — they are more likely to have their own computer to tinker with, while girls like me get to use the school computer.

      (I am bitter about class and gender differences in computer access, even though I had a lot more class privilege than my peers I went to school with. I was one of the few kids who actually had a computer at home when I was little.)

  3. Jessamyn Smith

    Thank you for writing this. It is a topic that I also spend a great deal of time thinking and reading about. I remember reading about one study in particular that showed that parents were far quicker to “rescue” a baby girl from distress, while they were more likely to encourage a baby boy to help himself (one particular scenario was putting the babies in the middle of the room surrounded by cushions, with the parents on the outside). I think girls are taught to be helpless and to need permission from a very early age.

    As for tinkering and building, at least in my own childhood experience, girls are punished more heavily for breaking things. There is this kind of attitude of “boys will be boys” but girls are supposed to behave. I was very lucky in that I was allowed to build all sorts of things, but I still had to be pretty careful not to ruin anything.

    I’m also having a little *squee* that there is another Jessamyn out there representing. Would love to talk to you! I’m @jessamynsmith on twitter.

    1. jessamyn

      I remember you did a guest post awhile back and I was excited to see another geeky Jessamyn exists in the world! And good points about protecting girls who behave and how that fits in to tinkering.

  4. jessamyn

    I heard there were geeky jessamyns hanging out in here… I’m more in the library science end of things but my pal Debcha is the one I’m always talking to about getting more women involved in STEM professions. She did this program at SXSW last year, super eye-opening for me.

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