Gender Gap apparent in CS classes, WiSTEM club faces obstacles

May 9, 2018 — by Anishi Patel

The Age of Information has seen significant improvement in the role of women in the workforce, especially in various STEM fields.

Perhaps nowhere has the impact been better felt than here in Silicon Valley. And while the presence of women in STEM both in the workforce and in schools is slowly increasing, evidence suggests that there is a long road ahead to true gender equality in STEM.  Following the framework set by their parents and other adults around them, many girls here find themselves gravitating toward a future in STEM.

“My mom grew up in Pakistan,” sophomore Kiran Chandrasekher said, “but she had such great opportunities — she went to grad school and became a biologist. She’s always encouraged equal treatment for me and my brother, and she’s my inspiration.”

Having learned the value of education, Chandrasekher’s mother, Yasmin Chandrasekher, has instilled in her the belief that she must never let gender affect her schooling.

These lessons and the opportunities she has been afforded have led Chandrasekher down the path to pursue a career in STEM.

Gender gap apparent in APCS

Chandrasekher, confident in the support she receives from not only her mother but her father and brother as well, eagerly enrolled in AP Computer Science as a sophomore.

But she soon noticed that the number of boys in her AP Computer Science class far outnumbered the number of girls. Of the 100 students taking APCS this year, 29 are female, according to data provided by registrar Robert Wise.

APCS teacher Debra Troxell said this imbalance may have its roots in students’ childhoods.

“I think that boys get interested in CS from a very young age,” Troxell explained. “Videogames and computer games are geared more toward boys, but if you’re interested in something, go for it! [It doesn’t] matter if you’re the only girl in the class.”

Troxell, who graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, is no stranger to gender discrepancies in STEM courses.

“I was one of two girls in a class of around 45, but I was there because I wanted to be there,” she said. “It never bothered me.”

Fascinated with programming and the challenge it provided, Troxell became an acoustic engineer in industry and later a CS  teacher.

During her time here, Troxell has monitored the number of girls enrolled in APCS and has found that the previously growing curve seems to have stagnated at one girl for every three boys.

While she does not know why female enrollment in CS has plateaued, Troxell routinely puts up flyers for school technology clubs or out-of-school hackathon opportunities to encourage both female and male students to get more involved in STEM activities.

Principal Paul Robinson thinks that in addition to the work the faculty does to encourage students, the fact that many of the school’s STEM teachers are female will inspire more girls to  participate.

“I wish I could tell you why the tech world seems to be so male dominated, but I don’t know,” Robinson said. “It certainly isn’t aptitude; the young women that I see working in our classes are at a level equal to their male counterparts.”

WiSTEM club faces uncertain future

Courses offered by the school are certainly not the only options for girls interested in STEM. Clubs such as WiSTEM and Girls Who Code were created to boost the presence of women in various STEM fields.

“I joined science club my freshman year and felt so out of place — 80 percent of the members were boys,” said Sonal Pai, a 2015 alumna who helped found the school’s WiSTEM club. “It continued when I tried to go to study groups with Calc BC students; they were mostly guys and I could never voice my opinion. I decided I needed to make a safe space for girls in STEM who had similar experiences.”

While here, Pai helped organize guest speakers for the club, making sure to include those with careers that differed from the typical engineer and doctor professions that Silicon Valley STEM students are encouraged to pursue, so that club members could see the true array of opportunities available to them.

Pai, along with the 2014 Lynbrook and Monta Vista WiSTEM club leaders, helped host the Bay Area Research Exposition, which was a “STEM extravaganza” complete with project displays and guest speakers from companies such as Google and Netflix.

But in recent years, the club’s activities seem to have declined, and as a result, several current WiSTEM members were disappointed with the club’s output this year.

Chandrasekher said that there have been only two WiSTEM club meetings this school year, the first being an introductory gathering.

“I think it’s really disappointing that the club hasn’t done much,” Chandrasekher said. “Encouraging girls to go into STEM fields is a really important issue and WiSTEM could provide a great atmosphere to do this.”

According to senior Caitlyn Chen, one of the co-presidents of the club, WiSTEM has been tough to maintain.

“We’ve all been really busy, and WiSTEM has not been our first priority,” Chen said. “We had a lot of things planned for the year, like the WiSTEM BARE event, but it fell through.”

The club was unable to find a venue for this year’s BARE exhibition after a contact at Google moved to another company.

Chen also said that the future of the club is in jeopardy, since most of the officers are seniors and will be graduating. Last year, WiSTEM had difficulty finding members dedicated enough to be officers, and Chen said she is unsure if any of this year’s underclassmen are able or willing to step up to a leadership role. The club may not be reinstated.

“That’s sad to hear,” Pai said in response to the club’s predicament. “I hope there are other outlets out there for girls in STEM to venture out and explore careers.”

Gender discrepancies in robotics

M-SET Robotics, another prominent STEM organization, has had its share of obstacles regarding gender as well. Of the 25 students attending the club’s trip to the FIRST World championship in Houston this April, nine were girls.

And while the number of girls on the team has risen substantially since the club’s founding days, long-time robotics parent mentor Diane France said the 34 percent ratio of girls in the club has lowered since the previous year.

The historically lower number of girls in the club may be a cause of subconscious bias, according to M-SET Robotics outreach officer sophomore Meghna Gupta, who has been involved in robotics for six years. Gupta finds that boys often dismiss her ideas, albeit unknowingly.

But on the team’s trip to Houston, Gupta and her roommates said they experienced a more blatant instance of sexism.

“During our tournament, after a long late-night meeting, one of the boys told members of one of the all-girl hotel rooms to ‘just go to bed and we’ll tell you what we decide in the morning.’ The person who said this may not have meant it in a rude way, but it was received really badly,” Gupta said. “We weren’t fragile little princesses. We didn’t need our beauty sleep. We could stay up late and make those decisions too.”

Sophomore Nandini Thakur, one of Gupta’s roommates in Houston, described other communication issues at the FIRST World championship.

When discussing which teams to ally with at the tournament, Thakur and the other girls found themselves on the outskirts of a circle of debating boys, hesitant to enter the conversation despite knowing that they could contribute.

“It’s just a confidence gap with girls in general,” Thakur said. “We tend to underestimate ourselves while guys tend to overestimate themselves.”

Thakur’s views are supported by research conducted at various publications. In an article entitled “The Confidence Gap,” journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman of The Atlantic documented how the difference between the number of men and the number of women in top positions often stems from a lack of confidence. Their research indicated that women often use phrases such as “I got lucky” to describe their successes, while men are consistently more self-assured.

They found that success correlates with confidence just as closely as it does with competence, and as a result, the confidence gap between the genders may result in a success gap as well.

In the robotics team, Thakur and Gupta both said that low confidence manifests when club members are applying for leadership positions; girls often deem themselves underqualified and don’t run for the top positions.

“Girls are seen as people to be in charge of the non-technical aspects of the team, such as business, marketing, and outreach,” Gupta said. “Unfortunately for us, our club fits the stereotype perfectly, as the officers for these three positions are all girls.”

Although subconscious bias and gender discrepancies in robotics have been noted, the team is working to improve the situation. Sophomore M-SET Robotics member Krisha Minocha said that club members are planning to help teach a girls-only coding class at a company called TechLab.

“A lot of times girls feel like it’s too late, or they lost an opportunity because they didn’t start STEM activities in middle school,” Minocha said. “We’re trying to give an opportunity to more girls so that they can get involved and reduce the gap.”

SHS’s next steps

The administration has also recognized the importance of getting students involved in STEM at an earlier age and has been working with Redwood Middle School to provide more STEM electives for middle schoolers. Through Project Lead the Way, the same engineering program that has been used at SHS, Redwood will soon have a full three-year program of engineering classes, which Robinson said will feed into SHS’s engineering courses.

Once the classes have been established, Robinson suggested sending some of SHS’s top girls in STEM to Redwood to speak with the middle school students and encourage them to stick with any STEM electives they may be taking.

In addition, Robinson hopes that some of the Project Lead the Way STEM classes at SHS — Introduction to Engineering, Principles of Engineering, Digital Electronics, Introduction to Programming and Engineering Design and Development — will continue to bolster the already-large presence of students in STEM.

“We need to break down the barriers to the pathways that people want to follow, and we’ve still got work to do,” Robinson said.

While the administration and clubs on campus work to close the gender gap, many female SHS alumni have gone on to pursue their desired careers in STEM.

Pai, who graduated from SHS in 2015, is now a junior at Rice University, where she is majoring in Bioengineering and minoring in Neuroscience. At Rice, Pai has had the opportunity to participate in multiple support groups for women engineers, researchers, and scientists alike. Her long-term goal is to eventually run a health-care startup.

“I was really encouraged to go into engineering by some of my teachers, so I hope to see more encouragement in high school and middle school,” Pai said. “Encouraging girls from a very early age is the next big leap for us; they shouldn’t be learning about engineering for the first time in university.”