A coin toss is a matter of chance. On the first toss, heads and tails are both equally likely. Getting the same result twice in a row is less likely. Five times in a row is improbable, though not impossible. However, if you flipped a coin eleven times, and got the same result all eleven times, you would start to look for some explanation to this pattern.
AP Statistics teacher Mr. David Matlock used this comparison to describe the significance of the gender distribution between STEM and the humanities at Taipei American School. In the Blue & Gold’s recent poll, we found that TAS girls gravitate heavily towards English classes, while boys dominate advanced classes in the STEM disciplines. According to Mr. Matlock, the chance of a gender imbalance of this degree or more extreme occurring by coincidence is about one in 2000. This is similar to the likelihood of landing heads on 11 coin tosses in a row.
This is not an issue unique to TAS, but a widespread trend. In 2011, a Harvard University study of over 6,000 college students across the United States indicated that boys are more than three times as likely to go into STEM careers than girls. Countless factors could contribute to the results of both this nationwide study and our own interviews. For one, a global conception that math simply is not for girls is deeply rooted in childhood stereotypes. Take a look at the kids’ slime kits and chemistry sets that line the shelves in department stores: they are clearly advertised towards males. “Wickeduncle.co.uk”, a UK-based children’s gift website, lists space posters and interactive robots as gifts for boys, while presents for girls consist of dresses, princess accessories, and all things pink.
Consequently, young girls who see STEM-related toys immediately think “this isn’t for me,” and opt for the stick-skinny, ballet-dancing Barbie doll instead.
No society can boast perfect gender equality, but TAS is a relatively progressive school, as shown by its transgender policy implemented this year. However, the lack of girls in STEM is evident even at this school: in seven polled high level math classes, less than a third of students were female. Teachers in TAS’ math department had enthusiastic opinions about this issue: as I spoke to individual teachers about my data, more inched into the conversation, eager to share their thoughts. Ms. Anisha Vinod, who teaches various classes in physics, math, and astronomy, recalled that as a general observation, a significant number of her female students tended to underestimate their mathematical abilities. In fact, she says that during placements for the 2016-17 school year, all of her regular physics students who requested to move up to honors chemistry for their sophomore year were male.
Perhaps the girls’ lack of confidence is rooted in how rarely they are represented and encouraged in STEM fields. When Ms. Vinod was a student, she was one of only three girls in a class of 15 astronomy and physics majors. She says, “Encouragement made a big difference in my life. I had a brilliant, female mathematician for a teacher, and that was the sole reason why I even considered a STEM career.”
What encouragement math lacks worldwide, English at TAS provides in abundance. In total, 11 upper level English classes were polled. These classes were on average 58.7 percent female, while the Upper School student body as a whole is only 48.4 percent female. Almost all the interviewed teachers were able to say that high level English classes generally have more girls, even before looking at their rosters for data confirmation.
The unequal gender distribution in English classes may in part be caused by female-empowering teachers, such as Girl Up club sponsor Ms. Abigail Chen, whose courses use the feminist lens to examine the power hierarchies in texts and society. To be clear, however, this is not to say that English classes have fewer boys because English teachers talk about gender equality. Rather, girls, consciously or not, lean towards where they see themselves represented and discussed. It’s the same concept as having a diverse movie cast: viewers feel that they can relate to the characters. Unsurprisingly, more English classes are taught by females than males.
The content of the classes themselves also increase their appeal to female students. TAS English reading lists are full of female authors such as Sandra Cisneros and Jane Austen, whose books freshman regular and honors students (respectively) spend months discussing. Last year, the IBHL Year 1 class read “Bad Feminist,” by cultural critic Roxane Gay, about modern feminism and how culture consumption shapes identity. Because so much of English class is spent analyzing the role of women, girls feel like they can excel in this subject.
“Encouragement,” “representation,” “discussion”—these solutions may seem far-fetched. However cliched they may sound, the reality is that they are effective. On a recent visit to Wellesley College, an all-girls liberal arts college in Boston, TAS math teacher Ms. Nyoli Connor observed that the school utilized a multitude of advertising strategies to encourage girls to join STEM classes, including posters of notable alumni and women thriving in math careers.
TAS uses a nearly identical method in recruitment for its robotics team. Mr. Matthew Fagen, Dean Kamen/SIGMU Robotics chair, says that the team often struggles in recruiting female members. To overcome this challenge, they have adopted a strategy of actively recruiting females, including holding information sessions about the team targeted specifically at middle school girls. Mr. Fagen says that though there is no performance or talent difference between the genders, it takes a conscious effort to encourage female membership. He says, “If I don’t do anything, the lab will become predominantly male. I’ve had amazing engineering students from both genders. The only thing we can do is recruit to make a culture that is welcoming to everyone.” With this kind of engagement, a more equal gender balance can be accomplished.