Dr Maria-Cristina Ciocci of the GirlsInSTEM programme discusses the challenges that still need to be overcome to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and maths.
Profile: Dr Maria-Cristina Ciocci is a mathematician, maker, upcycler and ideas machine. Her ardent passion for science and technology led from her academic career to the founding of Ingegno BV (ingegno.be). She is also co-founder and manager of non-profit organisation De Creative STEM (decreatievestem.be), a board member of EASE (European Association of STEAM Educators, ease-educators.com), co-founder of Bulb vzw (bulb.gent), a creative community with the motto ‘Shaping Creative Minds’ and member of the Flemish STEM platform, an independent advisory body designated by the Flemish government.
Getting more girls into the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called ‘hard subjects’, is a challenge that can be traced back decades to the old standard of men going to work while the women stayed at home. As with anything there were a few exceptions; Marie Skłodowska–Curie, the Polish-French Nobel prize-winning physicist and chemist is a stand out example. But she would presumably be disappointed that gender in the sciences is still such an issue well over a century after she undertook some of her most iconic and far-reaching work.
However an issue it remains and governments across Europe are tackling it in various different ways in an attempt to make the clear gender bias in some scientific disciplines a thing of the past. One such project is GirlsInSTEM, a European Commission-funded Erasmus+ programme designed to help girls and young women aged 14-25 to realise their potential in the STEM field.
At the head of GirlsInSTEM is Maria-Cristina Ciocci, a mathematician by profession who has found a calling in improving the chances of girls and young women to undertake careers in STEM subjects. Research Aether spoke to Dr Ciocci to get an idea of her successes and hopes for the future through the experiences and frustrations she has gone through so far.
The key barriers are sometimes just the kinds of words you use. We realised very early on that we needed to find a common language, a language where people would understand each other without putting up barriers through language. Sometimes the choice of words you use is very important because some people can be afraid of things if they hear them in a certain way, or they are very enthusiastic if they hear something else. So it was about finding the right words to use to engage the girls and that was the main problem in the beginning.
It would be nice to be able to talk about STEM without saying whether it is for girls or boys, but even now, by having the conversation about women and girls in STEM, it initiates a strange mechanism in the mind where on hearing the phrase ‘STEM for girls’ people immediately think there should also be something there for boys. We should avoid that. We should talk about science because it is science and STEM and it is not about girls or boys. It is a state of mind that we need to change in the educators, the parents, the scientists and at schools when they are proposing things.
If we could find a way as scientists and as educators to avoid gender when we talk about something it would really help, not only in STEM, but in other things too. It is difficult because it is often ingrained in the way we are behaving. This should change. As long as we don’t change that, it will take much longer to get more girls involved.
I go into a lot of schools doing STEM workshops, or ‘boot camps’ as we like to call them, where we look at techniques or make things and so on. I always try to bring a female colleague with me when we do these technical workshops and often we go to classes where the teacher is also a woman. I cannot tell you how many times the first thing the female teacher says is, “Oh look, today will be a fun day for boys.”
I’ll ask why she has said this and she will often reply, “Because there will be a lot of technique.”
It’s very spontaneous; it seems like a simple thing to say with no impact, but when we expose girls to this kind of expression, they subconsciously start to develop this world that is coloured along gender lines and that then affects their choices, which will depend on this initial reaction from the teacher. We must work to avoid this. I am not a magician, and I don’t have a solution, but I feel that is an important part of the problem and at the forefront of what we try to do.
It is changing, but if there were more films where the scientists are women, or more cartoons where women are engineers, then that would slowly change the mindset as well. And it is always a matter of mindset; when you choose something it always starts with the mindset.
At least you should consider the possibility of becoming an engineer or a mathematician or a physicist without taking into consideration whether you are male or female. It should just be whether you like something, whether it is your passion, whether you can exploit it for personal gain. These should be the first motivations.
Organising boot camps, activities and letting children experience the fun aspect of science from a young age will help to create a different view that is not dependent on what you see on the television or hear in the classroom. If we can create a safe environment outside of school where people can enjoy science and STEM because it is fun, then we could have an impact on the mindset children have on this subject. A child will then be able to decide whether they are going to engage with it because they like it, or they might think it’s okay but they want to do something else.
Science is not for everyone but at least their view of the subject has changed and that is something we strive for.
The main response we get from the boot camps is that they are a lot of fun, because it’s a very cool subject to immerse children in. Some of the girls we have met have been really surprised because they didn’t realise science could be so enjoyable. The other reaction we often get is that they found what they were doing was easy when they had always thought it was very difficult. We always have hands-on activities where they get to carry on little projects. The first reaction is always the same; “Hang on, I can do this! This is possible!”
They are always surprised. It was almost as if they always thought what they were doing was something that was only for very smart people, with all the experience and the training from a young age and then they discovered just how easy it was. STEM can become very difficult, of course it can, but the first step is easy. The tools to make it easy are there. It is just matter of trying it.
For me at least, that was the most powerful reaction. It’s the ‘can do’ mentality that starts to kick in.
Of course, when we get further down the line to careers, then we see differences across the board. I am a scientist and I am a woman and from that point of view I could say there are enough women. But the problem you usually find is the women aren’t in the hard sciences. If you go to work in engineering or the more technical parts of science, then you find fewer women compared to men; you still find a lot of segregation and there is work to do on that.
Take, for example, the IT sector where there are a lot of women; it is still a male-dominated sector and it is something that takes care of itself. It’s a cycle – because there are more men, when a job opportunity comes up, more men apply than women, so it becomes easier to choose a man. It is something that strengthens itself and we need to break the cycle in some way. If we could take this factor of gender out of the equation, starting from the job description, to the way we behave, then that would help a lot. Gender doesn’t make any difference in this kind of job.
The only field where gender can be important is the medical sector, because there we are different machines and have different components. However, I think with medicine there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that, whenever you say you are trying to do something for women and for girls, the medical sector, the care sector, is always mentioned. Maybe it is because, typically, women like to care for people? I don’t know. I like to build aircraft, but does that mean I am unusual? There is a lot of focus on women in particular going into the care sector. To attract women into STEM we use this concept of caring and it is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in that they lean towards it.
And yet has the same thing become problematic for men as well? Are they less inclined to choose a sector where there are a lot of women? There are male doctors, male nurses, so again, the language, the way we propose it, sometimes without thinking, is what has an impact.
We find the same issue in engineering; it is the way you see it, you propose it, you describe it. There are problems in our society with the way we are educated, even if it is sometimes accidental. In my case, my whole education has been gender-coloured, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, but we always make the distinction of male/ female, female/ male in everything. We should work to towards a society where the gender aspect, the sex, the issue of being female really doesn’t matter. It is something we have to take out of our heads, but it is very difficult because it is really ingrained.
If we succeed in changing this point of view in everybody, from toddlers onwards then in 20 years’ time we would see a difference. This kind of change of thinking is very difficult to achieve because it is very subtle; they are the little things, but we must try.
It also varies from country to country. In English it is better because there are more neutral terms, but in Dutch, for example, there is an issue because they have male and female terms. That is also an issue in Italian, French, German, anywhere where gender is assigned to nouns. But even in English literature, you can see the kinds of iconography used, the kinds of photographs, the stories that are told.
So I come back to my initial point: it is more than just the words; it should about the kind of language that you use. Turn on the television or open a book, and you can see representation is changing, but in most instances where we are talking something technological, or scientific, there is a man or a group of men there.
Learning from each other
STEM and science at this moment is a hot topic in Europe. Every country across the continent considers it very important and all are, in their own ways, trying to find the right approach. I feel we need to exchange best practices more. Teaching styles are different in different countries, sometimes due to tradition or history, so I think we can learn a lot from each other if we could exchange experiences when coming together in boot camps, or being in the classroom. Sometimes the approach is linked to the culture in a certain place. Sometimes it can vary from village to village. It is important to get all the different kinds of views because we will open your eyes and maybe you will act differently in your class.
The key message that we should promote is that science, STEM in general, is fun, it is useful and it is for everyone. Everyone should look at it not so much from the point of a view of a career, or whether they are male or female, but try it and try to understand it. If you enjoy it, then try to dig deeper and give yourself a chance to make it a career opportunity.