SCIENCE FOCUS

If we are to get more girls interested in science, then the 'geek' talk must go

Campaigns that emphasise nerdy image in effort to improve diversity of subjects are backfiring

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 November, 2014, 5:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

The word "geek" has become ubiquitous in the discussion about education and diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths - or STEM for short. CNN recently published a story headlined "Five reasons technology world needs more geek girls". The effort to get women and children more involved in STEM careers has led to the Geekbus travelling classroom and Geek Girl Dinners. The nerd image persists even in the working world: electronics chain Best Buy has the Geek Squad in which agents, including women, wear a stereotypically geeky uniform of a white shirt and tie.

There's been a concerted effort in recent years to improve diversity in the growing and lucrative STEM careers. Today, young women receive just 18 per cent of bachelor's degrees in computer sciences and 43 per cent of degrees in mathematics and statistics. If we really want to include and engage girls in these fields, the geek language has to go. In schools and in society, "geek" still carries a negative connotation that many girls and women do not associate with. Using a socially awkward loner as a symbol for STEM isn't an effective method for attracting girls to these fields. In fact, it's counterproductive. To fill these jobs, we need young women to discover how their own skills and passions apply to STEM. But we risk isolating many by suggesting that these careers are only for people who embrace their inner geek. We should be showing young women that they can love science and maths while also being fun and social people with broad interests.

Certainly, there are many girls who identify with the geek image. But they may be sold on STEM careers already, preparing to become part of the about 20 per cent of engineering students who are young women. Those aren't the girls primarily targeted by STEM diversity campaigns. I want to reach the other 80 per cent and show them the fascinating careers available in science and maths. To truly embrace diversity and reach gender parity in STEM, we must engage all girls.

The misguided reliance on "geek" to sell STEM careers has become surprisingly pervasive. Last year, the White House launched "We the Geeks", an initiative designed to highlight the future of STEM in the country through a series of Google+ Hangouts. "We the Geeks" does not feel like a place to encourage girls to explore STEM and the general public to get excited about what science and maths can do to improve our health, happiness and safety. With a pocket protector logo and a name playing to stereotypes, it furthers the perception that STEM is for nerdy men and those who believe they are part of the "we" in the club of the geeks. This image does not match the aspirations of the girls I see in school and college STEM programmes, nor does it mirror the images of the STEM professionals I work with.

We need to shift the perception of the STEM professional away from the stereotype of the mad scientist. Women currently in these fields - the role models who are a critical part of getting girls excited about STEM - aren't social outcasts, nerds and geeks. They show girls that STEM professionals have hobbies, families and lives outside of their challenging and enriching jobs. Through STEM role models, girls see that pocket protectors, lab coats, goggles and crazy hair are not requirements to succeed in these fields. Campaigns should show them that, too.

There are organisations that are attracting girls in the right way. The Million Women Mentors movement is recruiting women across the globe to serve as role models for girls in STEM. MentorNet and FabFems link girls with inspiring women who excite them about STEM by sharing their job experiences and showcasing their lives outside the workplace. Resources such as EngineerGirl and Engineer Your Life feature profiles of successful female engineers to whom girls can relate. None of these organisations rely on geek language to describe their STEM role models. Yet all of them recognise the importance of diverse mentors in engaging girls in the future of STEM. Role models change perceptions.

To imagine and create the solutions that will make our world safer, healthier and happier, we must engage everyone - all girls and all boys - in STEM. It's time to disband the club of the geeks.

Tricia Berry is director of the Women in Engineering Programme at The University of Texas at Austin.

The Washington Post