STEMinism at Nueva

Dec 7, 2018 | Features, Inside the Bubble, News, Opinion

When upper school associate biology and Interdisciplinary Studies of Science (ISoS) teacher Jehnna Ronan was a junior at Harvard University, she took an upper level science course taught by a male professor who often gave the impression that he favored male-identifying students in the classroom.

“It was a feeling of who the professor would turn to first to answer a question or who they would ask advice of in front of the room,” Ronan recalled.

Small acts of inequity often go unnoticed, but it is these unintentional microaggressions that have an outsized impact on female students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and allow for sexism to persist in the workplace when women ultimately go on to pursue careers in those fields. Academic classrooms, which are often the first settings in which students might be introduced to STEM subjects, can do much to support women in today’s society.

Jeremy Jacquot, who teaches chemistry in the Upper School, says that one of his goals as a STEM teacher is to become aware of those unintended, subconscious biases and to act as a “cheerleader” for all of his students, giving both male- and female-identifying students the same opportunities to succeed. He says that making girls feel like they have a place in science classes would help them gain the confidence to pursue more advanced STEM courses.

“Having now been an educator for several years, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the stark gaps in gender across to STEM fields and about how female-identifying students can be steered away from these fields—both explicitly and implicitly—at a young age,” Jacquot said. “As a result, despite being equally—and sometimes more—capable as their male-identifying peers, [some] do not develop the confidence to pursue their studies in these fields.”

When schools fail to counter sexism in STEM classrooms, the consequences carry over into post-education professional environments.

Having more women in the workplace would foster a culture of support, putting an end to the fear for women to speak up. Diverse perspectives and opinions are needed in a workplace. This has to start at school.

Valerie Braylovskiy

Sophomore taking Biological and Cognitive Psychology

On Nov. 1, more than 20,000 Google employees from around the globe joined together in a walkout to protest the leadership’s handling of sexual harassment within the company. Their demonstration, an indicator that female-identifying employees didn’t feel valued in the workplace, was just one of many walkouts, protests, and marches that have occurred in recent years, signalling a need for action, which can start before women reach the workplace.

Dan Cristiani, the academic dean for grades 5-12, describes it as an “equity issue.”

“We’re seeing in the Silicon Valley companies that are dominated by males and male culture sort of turn[ing] away females directly or implicitly,” Cristiani said.

And it’s not just in tech. Thirty years ago, when science teacher Francine Farouz received her chemical engineering degree, only 10 percent of the students were women. It was even less when she received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry in the United States (and interestingly, the few women who graduated at the time were not American).

“The pharmaceutical industry reflects those numbers, with very few women in leadership roles,” Farouz said.

“Being able to communicate well and…be inclusive of different perspectives and different kinds of thinking allows us to better solve problems,” Lange said. “I very strongly believe that we need people of different backgrounds in any kind of academic or problem-solving environment in order to be able to achieve the goals of that [community].”

Benjamin Cheng (12), who is deeply involved in biology research and works with the experimental research (XRT) team, takes Drug Design and Applied Molecular Biology. Both are research classes he describes as open-ended and student-led. As an unintentional result, “a little bit of bro culture” can sometimes develop. He observed that, generally speaking, girls who do join STEM classes have friends in the class or are okay with the culture, which “could turn away female students who were otherwise interested in the subject.”

“I’ve definitely had the experience of being told to chill when I asked politely if I could finish my sentence…which implied that me asking to finish my sentence was asking too much,” Lange said.

The I-Lab is a really, really cool space, but is also quite intimidating, to both boys and girls. However, maybe girls more. There is lots of advanced machinery and often a resident group of students, mostly boys, in my experience, that are proficient in using these machines and often aren’t afraid to show it.

Kayla Wagonfeld (12)

This also carries into the I-Lab, though females are much more well-represented here than in other classes.

The faculty and school leaders are conscious of the gender imbalance, and they’re trying to address it and support the female-identifying students. Cristiani expressed that the school’s administration is doing their best to establish an inclusive culture, like bringing in more female instructors. Across all STEM subjects, there is a 1:1 female to male ratio of the faculty who work with US students, and there’s close gender parity within disciplines.

Why are female-identifying students are still underrepresented in a lot of STEM classes? Jen Selby, who teaches computer science, said that “the ‘why’ is a long answer,” while Farouz stated that “the reasons behind these lower numbers are numerous.” (Farouz also acknowledged that not all STEM fields are equal: For example, women represent half of the Bachelor of Science graduates in health sciences, biology included.) But the faculty are consciously trying to address it.

“I talk individually to students, especially girls, who I think might underestimate their abilities and not sign up for a class or event because of that,” Selby said. 

“I talk individually to students about their experiences in my classes and computer science classes in general; I talk to them about why they did or did not choose to take a CS class, and work with some of them to make the class descriptions more clear and inviting.”

Like many other Nueva teachers, Selby discusses class norms with her students to create a comfortable environment for participation. She also makes it a point to call out behaviors that she thinks would discourage other people—especially girls—from participating.

“I meet with other Nueva teachers to discuss our experiences and what strategies we have found helpful,” she said, adding that she also reads research and attends training sessions relevant to these issues.

Farouz also emphasizes the importance of role models and mentorship: “All students need mentors. I was very lucky to encounter with my Ph.D. advisor, my post-doctoral advisor, my first boss, people who believed in the research I was doing and gave me free rein to take it in the direction I wanted.”

It’s meant so much to me when people had just realized that there was any kind of gender balance in a classroom. We don’t necessarily notice when we have it because it doesn’t negatively affect us.

Jenna Lange (12)

One of the most important steps that both male students and teachers can take to be supportive is to simply recognize that females’ perspectives and opinions are just as important as theirs, not just because they provide a different outlook through the lens of gender, but also because they have the right to feel comfortable and safe while expressing themselves without feeling fear, regret, or other guilt- and shame-imposing emotions. A quick awareness check or even a encouragement to share in discussions or put themselves out could be very helpful to many female students in creating a safe space to develop their skills and passion.

Grant Audet, who teaches math, said that faculty are trying to create those spaces for everyone to have a voice.

“In classes, we try to push back on male students taking too much of a role in discussions,” Audet said. “We highlight whenever we can student work from females that’s really strong, so that people aren’t getting the perception that since males are just speaking up more that their work is better or that their abilities are better. I think male students need to make that space just to realize the strength of their female peers.”