Women in learning: get your geek on!

By Ewa Jankowska December 03, 2015

The Learning Blog welcomes a guest blogger, Ewa Jankowska from Lumesse Poland, posting on themes that we will be covering over the coming weeks as we share insights from our recent Thought Leadership Dinner on Women in Learning.

Business woman working at her computer

A programmer friend recently told me that men are bound to be better developers, simply because there are more of them. At first I recoiled inside, then looked around at our colleagues. Out of the other 10 in the room all were men. So who am I to argue with statistics that say only 9% of women are programmers?

But wait a minute! How can I – or anyone – believe it to be true that men are better programmers than women? Where do these stereotypes come from? Just because there are more men in this role doesn’t mean they are better. There is also no scientific evidence to support the tired thinking about the different abilities of men and women. In fact, it’s the opposite: scientists have said there is no difference between the male and female brain.

The proof? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied young people of both sexes from 86 countries and found that girls perform better in science subjects in countries where there is greater equality (read the report here). In addition, girls today perform better in mathematics than at any other time in history. If the arguments for men having superior ability in science subjects were linked to gender then no change would be noticeable, but that clearly isn’t the case.

It should be obvious that a woman can be just as good a programmer as a man, regardless of stereotypes. More than this, male students of computer science will probably welcome more women, so where is the problem? The problem actually lies in our minds.

The blame for this originates in our approach to the education of girls and boys, forcing them into frameworks of learning and behaviour before they even come into the world, and instilling intellectual and emotional differences. These only deepen the destructive stereotypes that say boys are better at science subjects and girls in the humanities. Girls are praised for beauty and grace, boys for creativity and enthusiasm. This can lead to girls having a lack of confidence in their ability and qualifications, and ultimately they can accept earning less.

What can we do? Above all we must praise the progress of girls: encourage and motivate them. Maria Pawlowska writes in the report “Women and men’s brains, or neurosexism in action and its social consequences” that we should show girls that those successful in maths are successful because of the result of individual effort and work, and she argues that the role of women is not only to be a wife and mother, giving many examples of women mathematicians and scientists. Parents and teachers must not perpetuate in their children the belief that something is not right for either girls or boys, or that gender dictates what they should be doing.

Change takes time and effort at the source to create a shift in thinking, and probably a lot of talent has already been squandered, but something is beginning to change and each initiative is commendable and a step in the right direction.

Girls in Poland have been encouraged to study at technical universities and over five years (2006 – 2011) their numbers went up from just under 25% of students to over a third. It should be noted that this result is not because of a rapid improvement in the mathematical skills of women but because of continuous and persistent action against stereotypes, and with institutions showing good practice it shows change is possible.

One influence on this may also be an initiative from the Polish Office of Electronic Communications – “Girls in New Technologies”. As part of a competition they selected the best entries and awarded internships in leading internet and telecommunications companies. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to encourage girls to pursue studies in IT-related subjects, and subsequent employment in the wider sector of new technologies. Such initiatives build self-confidence in women and instill passion.

Another example of grassroots mobilization of women in IT is the organization Geek Girls Carrots. This is a community built up from a forum of women who love new technologies. They organize meetings, workshops, courses, and free training for those starting their adventures with programming. Through demonstrating by example they help to motivate and encourage women to start their journey in IT or modify their existing career. This helps drive the argument that the world of IT is definitely a place for women.

Currently, the greatest demand for professionals is in the IT market and as we have seen this is an area in which girls and women can get involved and succeed in with the same enthusiasm as men.

Women shouldn’t have to fear starting in an inferior position, so let’s put aside prejudices and create opportunities instead.

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