Not All Fields Created Equal: an evening with Sapna Cheryan, PhD

This evening, I had the pleasure of learning more about the gender gap in STEM from Sapna Cheryan, a researcher at the University of Washington focused on interrogating the STEM fields with the largest gaps in gender parity: computer science, engineering, and physics.  Her talk was sponsored by the Evergreen School and was geared primarily towards K-12 teachers and parents.

Dr. Cheryan focused on two factors that make a particular field unwelcoming to women: masculine culture and insufficient early experience with those particular fields.  The former is a combination of beliefs, norms, structures, and interactions that cause women to feel a lower sense of belonging in a particular institution or field.  The latter focused on ways that early training is biased against equal exposure and skill-building across STEM fields, leading to unequal outcomes.

One of the most striking findings Dr. Cheryan shared had to do with the effect of physical space on how welcomed and interested students were in a particular course.  One study she cited asked high school students about their interest in taking a hypothetical computer science course being offered.  Students in the two experimental groups had the same class described to them – it had a male teacher, met a certain number of times per week, and focused on the same amount and rigor of content.  The only difference between the classes was the physical space the class met in.  One class met in a stereotypically “geeky” classroom, with Star Trek ephemera, visible electronics equipment, and action figures present in the classroom (left image, University of Washington).  The other classroom offered was a more neutral space, with plants, art pieces, and water bottles around the classroom (right image, University of Washington).

How much of a difference can a physical space make?  As it turns out, quite a lot!  When asked about their interest in taking the course, students seeing a stereotypical classroom showed typical gender disparity in their interest.  When viewing the neutral, non-stereotypical classroom with the plants and water bottles – that gap in interest disappeared.

Moreover, students sense of belonging in the course showed a similar trend.  This led Dr. Cheryan and her team to coin a term for this: ambient belonging.  She defined ambient belonging as how one senses a “fit with the material components of an environment and with the people who are imagined to occupy that environment.”

This concept of ambient belonging struck a chord for me personally and for many in the audience.  Spaces reflect those they are designed for, whether that be literal physical access for people with disabilities, comfort by seeing images of people with shared identities for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks, or the way that objects can invite a particular set of cultural norms, be that Star Trek figurines or exercise equipment.

One listener invited those attending the talk to think about ways that we can teach our kids and students to observe their sense of ambient belonging and use that awareness as a tool of empowerment.

I am inspired to bring this to the leadership at my school, where we are in the process of planning and building a new middle school building.  I also feel challenged to think about the ways my classroom may be a more or less welcoming space to specific students based on their identity, values, and socialization.

When discussing insufficient early experience in computer science, physics, and engineering, Dr. Charyan discussed the advantages of requiring those types of courses instead of making them optional.  When students are not required to take classes in a particular STEM field, students who don’t see themselves reflected in the work of those fields based on stereotypes or their own conceptions often opt out.  They are not exposed to the real work of the discipline, nor are they able to develop the groundwork for further learning if they were to discover an interest later in their education.  This is certainly true at my school, where computer science and physics are both electives, and no explicit engineering course is consistently offered.

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As the conclusion to her talk, Dr. Charyan gave advice that she would give to her own high school, a STEM-focused research school at the University of Indiana.  Of the suggestions she provided, the one that struck me most was the last – send students to colleges with good cultures within STEM.

I attended a small private liberal arts college well-known for being a hotbed of social activism from its very founding.  Yet when I studied Economics as an undergrad, an out queer person and a person perceived as female in an overwhelmingly cis male department, I found very little empathy or acknowledgement from faculty that I was in a challenging position.  The one tenured female faculty member in the department gave me the same advice she had been given, that had enabled her to survive in a cutthroat, male-dominated field – suck it up.  No acknowledgement of the challenges of the culture, no conversation about disparities was ever posed as even a possibility, even in one-on-one interactions with faculty.

It can be easy to say that in order for students to survive in the broader world, they need to be prepared for the reality of white masculine culture and the disparities faced by women, people of color, and people with disabilities in STEM fields.  It is crystal clear, however, that this focus on “toughing up” is not only ineffective, it sets talented future scientists on the path to burnout and failure.  Identifying healthy, equity-focused school cultures and sending our students to those institutions is the solution to success, not telling them to suck it up and learn to live among the powerful.  Instead, taking that biased “reality” and queering it to our own ends is one step on the path to equity.

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