Over the last several weeks, girls all over the world have been using #notadistraction and speaking up against school dress codes that unfairly objectify and victimize female students. With the strength of these students supported by strong female role models like Amy Poehler and her Smart Girls organization, school districts are going to have to start paying attention.
We are thrilled to see Amy Poehler using her organization as a platform to speak out on this issue. While school dress codes can seem like a small thing, they are too often used as an excuse to continue marginalizing female voices in academia, particularly in STEM fields.
While there are more women achieving in math and science than ever before (Elizabeth Holmes and Maryam Mirzakhani, among others), women continue to be underrepresented in STEM. We believe that this lack of diversity is not just morally problematic, but prohibitive to cultural and technological advancement. Scientific discoveries, medical advancements, and entrepreneurial successes are critical to growth, and we can’t risk keeping half the population on the sidelines. This change needs to start in our classrooms; schools need to start including and acknowledging female students.
At expii, we believe strongly in gender equality from grade school to the C-level. Our core principle is to reduce barriers in education, and part of that means making sure that everyone has a voice.
What’s the problem?
Here’s the good news: in most high school math and science classes, girls are much less likely to be in the minority than they used to be. Here’s the bad news: there is still a huge gender gap in physics and engineering courses in high school, and many girls struggle to see themselves as smart enough to study computer science.
The gap only widens when students get to college: even though women represent over half of all bachelor’s degrees, they receive only 18% of computer science degrees, 19% of engineering degrees, and 19% of physics degrees (see more statistics here). This turns into a lack of representation in STEM career fields, which means a lack of female role models and a culture that can be unwelcoming to minorities.
We need to keep pushing to fix the STEM gender gap starting in grade school, because girls who code grow up to be women who program. Aptitude and ability in STEM subjects is balanced across the genders until middle school (Kahle & Lakes, 2003; Sadker, 1994). By age 13, girls start to lose interest in their math and science classes. What’s going on that tells girls they no longer have a place in these subjects? What’s going on that tells girls that their voices don’t matter?
The problem is not school dress codes. Dress codes are a real part of how society functions – not every piece of clothing is appropriate for every situation. The problem is when schools cite sexual distraction for their decisions to hand out detentions or send girls home, pulling them out of class and shaming them in front of peers. Go ahead, tell students that they can’t wear outfits that reveal undergarments. Just don’t say that they can’t show bra straps because it’ll be too distracting to male students and teachers. That line of reasoning manages to objectify women and insult men all in one go.
When schools punish female students for wearing “sexually inappropriate” or “distracting” clothing, they contribute to a culture that says women exist to be viewed in terms of their sexuality. Not addressing this issue in grade school is how we end up with adults (Nobel Prize winners, at that) who think it’s okay to say that female coworkers are distractingly sexy. It is ridiculous that so much attention seems to be given to what girls are wearing when we know that not enough attention is given to what they are saying and thinking.
So what can we do?
Every time someone stands up and says, “This is not okay,” we are one step closer to changing the norm. It makes a difference when students speak out, no matter their gender; it makes a difference when people like Amy Poehler use positions of power to take a stance.
At expii, we want to make a difference. We are rethinking the education system, and a huge part of that is giving women and minorities equal representation and equal voices. Here is how we are achieving that goal:
- Hire women!
Tech companies have a nasty habit of skewing disproportionately male. Our office, with 50% female employees, looks a little bit different. Sure, we’re small, but this kind of balance is still abnormal – when we attended marketing and startup events, we are often the only team to have a female representative.
It’s natural for startups to grow by hiring friends and other people that the founders know, and it’s easy for that to end up reflecting a group of people without much diversity. We took a different approach. Using both warm leads in addition to traditional recruiting, we were able to find people who were not only the best candidates for the jobs but who also helped us build a diverse and balanced office culture. Having different voices at our company matters to us because it helps us empathize with all of our users, from all different backgrounds. Diversity, even for small companies, is not just a social good – it’s good for business.
- Build an inclusive product.
expii is a crowdsourced collection of interactive explanations on math and science topics. Unlike most educational resources, we don’t believe that there’s one right way to explain something – there are many different ways to both teach and learn. So, expii has multiple explanations for each topic.
Even though learning science shows that there aren’t black and white distinctions like “visual learners” and “auditory learners,” people are still distinct individuals with their own ways of processing and understanding new information. The more perspectives we have explaining a topic, the more likely you are to find an explanation that works for you. Additionally, diversity among authors helps learners see themselves succeeding, especially if they’re fighting stereotype threat.
This system also encourages everyone to contribute their unique perspective. We understand that it can be intimidating to join a conversation where it sounds like people have already reached a consensus. On expii, we explicitly welcome new opinions and perspectives – there’s always room for more.
- Create a welcoming community.
Building a community from scratch gives us a chance to redefine expectations. We can choose what the future of education looks like, and we see a future with equal representation. Several of our earliest adopters shared this vision, and created girls@expii, an independently run initiative that encourages girls to write explanations in math and physics.
They’ve written previously about their experience confronting the gender gap in STEM, particularly at math competitions, and how they see expii as an opportunity to create a “new normal.” The girls in this group are frequent contributors, and often have some of the most creative and popular explanations on the site. We are proud to have the support of these students, and they’ve set a great standard for what communities on expii should look like as we grow.
It’s easy to think about education just in terms of what to teach and how to teach it. But, if we really want to have an impact, we have to confront issues like gender inequality and sexism, issues that are so entrenched in our cultural norms that they bleed into our classrooms.
It is not okay for women to be minorities in so many career paths and college majors. It is not okay for girls to struggle to find female peers, mentors, and role models in STEM. It is not okay for an education system to perpetuate these trends by marginalizing female voices. And it is certainly not okay for schools to unnecessarily and inappropriately objectify female students.
It’s not complicated: everyone gets a voice. Let’s fix education together.
We want to hear your stories! Have you ever spoken up and made an impact? When have you noticed the value of having multiple voices?