How do male dominated teams (and otherwise) make sure that girls stay comfortable in their technical groups and feel empowered to speak up if they see/experience something that makes them uncomfortable. I know that retention rates is an issue in a lot of FIRST teams, but how do we make sure that they’re having a positive experience through build season if they stay?
One of the biggest issues I see is teams not doing enough to instill a base level of confidence/experience in all their members.
A lot of team cultures require that students be aggressive advocates for themselves in order to get to work on projects or pursue their ideas. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but the end result is that, if a student is severely lacking in experience or confidence, they are less likely to be able to do the activities which instill those qualities.
If a team fails to encourage/train its members and grant them all a base level of experience/confidence, those who enter the program with no experience/confidence (often girls and URMs) will consistently fail to engage in activities and contribute to the team to the same extent as their peers (which will, if anything, worsen their confidence). This situation can cause a lot of girls who join teams to feel stuck, as though they can’t really engage or lead their team in the way their peers do, esp. if they have to compete with those peers for work or leadership opportunities. Often, they’ll either join the least-populated/prominent subteams (where they don’t have to compete with their peers to take on opportunities) or drop out entirely.
So, providing extensive training and encouragement to new members can do wonders for female/URM retention, and failing to do so can severely hurt female/URM retention.
I’m going to try to not get too preachy or controversial here. That being said, I’m always open for discussion, so if you have any questions or comments on anything I say or any of my opinions, feel free to shoot me a DM. Engineering education is a topic I’m passionate about, and a big component of this is making sure everybody has a chance at this education.
First off, big +1 on training and empowerment. Make sure it’s an overall team atmosphere thing though, not a case of “hey you’re a girl/URM so we’re going to make you feel singled out even though our intentions are good” — that can do a lot of damage, as I’ll mention in a minute.
It’s always good to mind how you and others lead discussions, make sure everyone feels like they have the opportunity to be engaged and constructive — that can mean everything from asking loud/domineering students to take a back seat in certain discussions to implementing stand-ups to meeting one-on-one with people to just chat about certain topics. Make sure everybody feels heard and noticed without feeling pressured or pushed into the spotlight. Like Patricia mentioned, you’d do good to remember that the sort of self-promotion some people expect is far from a universal instinct, so some normalization is frequently required, whether by salient influence from leadership and mentors or a general team atmosphere.
Also, you can work to teach your students (and mentors!) not to be sexist/biased jerks — foster a respectful and constructive atmosphere, implicit (and explicit!) bias is absolutely a thing, especially among nerdy kids who live on the internet. That’s not to say that team meetings have to be somber, humorless affairs, but make sure there’s some baseline of respect. Careful here though, the number one way you can make people defensive and further entrenched in biases is to start arbitrarily preaching or making them feel attacked — as a perhaps weird example, the big reason we have YouTube videos titled “<social/political movement> cringe compilation #84” and not “rational response to <social/political movement>” is defensiveness in the face of poorly conveyed and frequently insensitive and under-nuanced discussion.
Choose your language, hold yourself to the highest standards possible, and people will follow.
Leadership is an amazing thing to help people build confidence. Making people feel like they have ownership over and responsibility for some element of the team (if they want to) is one of the best ways to stimulate personal growth and improvement in students.
Getting maybe a bit more controversial here, I find the majority of conversations along the line of “how do we encourage girls in STEM” are, no matter how well-intentioned, frequently oversimplistic, borderline infantilzing, and sometimes full-on problematic. Too many times this complex multi-dimensional topic is reduced to “just have more outreach and role models.” People hate talking about bias, whether personal or systematic, and discussions almost always avoid hard topics and stick to wishy-washy, almost inactionable domains — no matter how well-intentioned your outreach efforts, none of that is going to matter when your team (and thus system) is created by and thus implicitly biased towards the median of “aggressively competitive and socially awkward male.” That awful Google manifesto is an unintentionally brilliant example of why this is such an issue and what happens when this system becomes the norm. I recommend framing discussions less around “how do we encourage girls” and more “how do we encourage anybody who isn’t the median, regardless of personal characteristics.” You cannot foster a more inclusive atmosphere without analyzing and acknowledging the implicit biases that are causing the problems in the first place. Now, I’m biased since Debbie’s one of my professors, but I’d highly recommend giving this article a look: https://www.nature.com/news/to-reduce-gender-biases-acknowledge-them-1.22502.
That being said, positive role models are so helpful and really powerful in terms of encouraging girls/URMs to get involved — just approach the situation in a nuanced manner with thought given to all aspects of the problem and issue.
I’m lucky enough to be part of an incredibly inclusive college community where I’m surrounded by people who have made a career of researching and tackling bias and inequality in education in rational, accessible, and inclusive ways. I’d be happy to pass any questions or comments or anything like that onto people who make a living knowing more about this than I do
Hopefully I helped and not just wall-of-texted you into oblivion
I treat them the same as I treat the boys. It’s a crazy concept but I’ve found when people feel like they are equal and valued they tend to stick around.
That’s a good starting point, but to add on there: it’s worth noting that treating girls and boys the same doesn’t automatically mean they benefit the same. Constant introspection and a strong willingness to change/improve when necessary are also important.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard valid observations about URM/female retention issues get shut down with a simple (often defensive): “Well, we don’t treat women/URMs any differently than anyone else, so we obviously don’t have a problem.” Meanwhile, these groups fail to realize that some of their practices, although applied to everyone the same, have a disproportionate impact against their women/URMs (e.g. not providing sufficient training/encouragement to newcomers).
Move away from being a male dominated team.
Basically, don’t push any of your students away. Ask them what they’re interested and help support them in doing that. This goes for boys and non-binary folks too. In my opinion, it’s just generally a part of being a good team. As mentors, encourage students to take leadership roles and build those skills.
Low involvement of girls is often a symptom of broader cultural issues on the team. I know it was for 2220, and it has been a process over the last 6+ years to build that culture of inclusion, and it takes effort to maintain it. It is much more difficult to be inclusive than exclusive, and that effort requires students and mentors to buy in and lead those efforts.
I treat them the same as I treat the boys. It’s a crazy concept but I’ve found when people feel like they are equal and valued they tend to stick around.
I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not trying to be accusatory here in any way, just provoke a bit of thought. That being said, feel free to ignore what I’m saying if you don’t feel it’s a useful opinion (or better yet, respond and say why).
So, I don’t know your situation or practices, and this might not apply whatsoever. That being said…
Equality is a great thing, and we should strive for equal and equitable treatment whenever possible. However, sometimes what we see as equal treatment is only equal from our perspective and that of those like us. It’s important to acknowledge the effect that lifelong societal forces and biases have on peoples’ personalities and needs in a team environment. I’ve been guilty of this myself — I was treating people equally, yes, but in a way that was unfairly benefiting those with a strong implicit drive and neglecting those that required a broader range of motivation. We’re conditioned and biased to hold our general personality type in high esteem, which can really hurt people with different needs and motivating factors than ourselves.
Darn, right when I’m about to post this, Patricia says everything I’m trying to say but better, haha.
To add on to her frustratingly eloquent answer, this sort of intrinsically unfair “equality” can actually be really toxic and harmful, to use a sort of politically charged (but in my opinion, appropriate) word. Not only do you end up pushing demographics away, but you can very easily encourage negative stereotypes, biases, and prejudices.
Note that this is a generalization and absolutely not a fit-all rule, but here’s a basic example. I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that there’s a difference in the level of self-promotion and self-advocation you see in male and female students, a phenomenon primarily (to the best of my education) caused by societal conditioning and implicit bias. If I gauge student ability based on surface-level competency exhibited, then male students, who are frequently more comfortable asserting their knowledge, would generally come off as more competent and knowledgeable, even if the female students have more experience and are better leaders. By asserting this brand of biased equality, not only would I be hurting the team’s performance by neglecting valuable members, I could unconsciously be pushing my metric on the rest of the team and creating a less inclusive environment, causing female students to leave and reinforcing negative stereotypes about women in STEM/tech.
The Google manifesto’s a good example, where one man’s metric for competency was based on personal experience and measured against his own personality type.
Once again, not being accusatory, I don’t have a good picture of your or your team’s situation, but it’s always a good idea to spend some time on introspection, making sure that your personal brand of leadership is truly equal.
Introspection’s really hard though, and it can be incredibly difficult to recognize and confront implicit biases oneself might hold. It was a long and difficult road for me, at least. That being said, it’s absolutely worth the work, and can absolutely revolutionize a team’s performance, not to mention learning experiences of the members.
Recruit female engineering mentors, and male engineering mentors who are advocates of gender equality.
Treat everyone exactly the same because they don’t want special treatment either.
Our team has about 35-40% female students and a similar proportion of female mentors. We don’t have any particular affirmative action policies or go out of our way to recruit women. It just so happens that we have female and male mentors on every one of our subteams: CAD & fabrication, electrical & controls, software, and business & administration. I think that helps interested girls to feel comfortable choosing whatever subteam they want to join, and we train everyone equally. We have a very flat and informal team leadership/executive structure where essentially the people who want to take leadership roles need only show us that they’re engaged and they become de facto leaders. It also so happens that our drive coach and lead pit mentor are both female.
We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year endorsing our team culture which is based on the Walt Disney concept of “plussing”. As mentors we’re self-conscious about treating everyone right, and equally.
I can only speak from my own perspective, but it seems to me that by initially setting up the right atmosphere from the start, it tends to self-propagate.
I do hear frustrating stories come from our students about the stereotypes they have to endure at school. For example, one of our female students frequently gets grief from (female!) teachers when she tells them she will be absent from school because she’s away competing with the robotics team (i.e. you’re on a robotics team? but you’re a girl.)
While a number of very valid ideas have been raised I think the single most effective thing teams can do is to ensure the participation of active female mentors, especially women who are working professionally in STEM fields. They are the most effective gender role models for the students; delivering a concrete example of women in STEM to students of both genders.
As a team, we are very lucky to be located in a “high tech” area and have a number of female mentors who are engineers, scientists, and software developers, as that is the demographic of most of our mentors. As an older male engineer, I certainly have observed many behaviours in my career that were not conducive to creating a positive gender neutral environment, but witnessing it is very different to living it.
This leads me to my main point; There is another aspect these mentors bring to the table that is potentially even more valuable, than the positive role model. These women have “lived” the experience of building a career in what are traditionally male dominated fields, under typically worse conditions than exist today. They can speak to, share, and recognize gender based issues more readily that male mentors can, even male mentors who are trying to be sensitive to the issues. The perspective they bring is immensely valuable to a team that is trying to change the “culture” in STEM, or just to ensure that the team are not propagating old issues and behaviors.
-Make space for them. When my team would have group conversations about technical topics (ie “what are our robot priorities?”) I would intentionally ask a quiet* student what they thought (even if, especially if, they didn’t raise their hand).
-Make space for them. Got a kid who can assemble gearboxes in their sleep assembling yet another gear box? “Hey student, you should show quiet* student how to do the thing.”
-Make time for them. Ask quiet* students if they’re working on something, if they’re interested in it, if there is something they want to work on that they aren’t working on, etc.
*quiet = rookie, shy, or otherwise not overly confident in their robot abilities; tends to be rookies and underrepresented minorities
On a previous team, the student leaders were appointed by the Head Mentor based on merit and previous history of involvement/commitment. I think just over 1/3 of the team members were girls and the proportion of team leaders (including team captain some years) that were girls was usually slightly higher. The only times I recall gender being mentioned was when students were being paired up for hotel rooms when the team was traveling.
Having spent nearly ten years in the FIRST program, in FLL, FTC, and FRC, this is definitely a topic that is close to my heart. Keeping women involved in the program and getting them started in it is definitely a multi-faceted issue. Speaking from experience, being a woman in FIRST often meant that I had to try harder to be heard, and had to at least act confidently in myself even when I wasn’t sure if I truly was. Additionally, one of the biggest things to remember is that it’s not always how your own team members treat girls on the team, but also how your team members treat girls on other teams too. On my own team, I can’t recall being treated differently than my male peers, but I’ve lost count of the number of times at competition that I was passed up by scouts to talk to my male team members, or when someone would come looking for help and assume that I wouldn’t be knowledgeable about whatever it was, and often times it was those little things that were the toughest to deal with.
If the culture of a team is male-dominated, coming in as a woman it can be tough to break into the sort of “bro-culture” that exists, and one of the best ways to make girls feel comfortable in that is to build friendships outside of just robotics. It was always much easier to speak up when I was comfortable with the people I was around, and building friendships creates not only trust between team members, but respect as well.
On the other end of things, one of the best way to keep girls in the FIRST program is to have strong role models and try to get them interested when they’re young. I started FIRST when I was 8 years old, and I was determined to stick with it, even if the male-dominated culture of robotics made it tough sometimes, because I saw girls on the FRC team, and I knew if they could do it that I could too. If you show girls when they’re young that FIRST is a place where they are wanted and can succeed, it will definitely stick with them.
They run the team.
Our original team 3275 was a Co Ed team for the first 4 years very limited female involvement.
A little about our school. Middle of nowhere Minnesota. Low income Native American reservation. 90% free lunch. High School population 200 ish 9-12.
In 2013 one of our female team members suggested we start a all girls team. So we canvassed the female student population and had many girls said they would be interested if they have their own team. So in 2014 team 3134 joined 3275 at our school. Each team has their own strength. Sometimes are robots are similar and sometimes they are very different. Our girls team is every bit as good as our boys team.
Granted this comes with financial and other complications.
I really have only one piece of advice, and it may seem unhelpful, but it’s not - trust me.
That’s it. ASK.
Ask the under represented Person how you can help them. Collaborate on ways that can help get their voice heard / work acknowledged. They may not know, but ask anyway. Try something. Ask if it worked. Don’t assume it worked because you saw a difference. ASK. If it didn’t, try something else and ask again.
Never assume an individual or even a group will have the same reaction as any other group. ASK. If you want more girls on your team, ask the girls you’re trying to recruit what you can do to gain their interest. If you want to know how to help someone have their voice heard. ASK.
They may not know how to answer. They may have never been asked before. They may have to think about it. That’s ok. But Then…
… most important of all… listen.
Even when their silent. Listen.
And when they hesitate. Listen.
When they try to tell you what you want to hear, because they know it’s what you want to hear… listen harder.
Every person needs something a little diffrent. Every group has its own dynamics and requires a different approach. Respect that. Let them know that you care by really listening. You should only make suggestions after you’ve listened. And they are suggestions only. If the person/ group seems to think it might work, try them, then ask if it worked.
If you want to help them get their voice heard then you need to listen even when it’s hard to hear.
The absolute #1 thing you can do is to stop taking the tools out of their hands. Seriously I’ve seen it all too many times where a female student who is working on a task has a male student come in and push her out.
The other #1 thing you can do is to empower the female student to tell the male student to back off, I’m working on this and I CAN do it just as well as you can.
Same as you would anyone else on the team.
If the student wants to learn, teach them.
If the student has learned a role wants to lead, teach them to lead.
Once you have girls in leadership roles in your team, what’s your problem again?
What if the student has been conditioned by their society to think that they can’t learn about science and technology? What if the student has been conditioned to think that they can’t take initiative or can’t lead? I definitely understand this view (because it wasn’t very long ago when I shared it), but I think that we need to do more for students who for whatever reason don’t know how to communicate that they want to learn or want to lead.
Your problem is that the males on your team still don’t respect them and still don’t listen to them. Putting women in leadership positions doesn’t magically make that problem go away. You need to change the entire team culture.
It depends on how the team leadership treats the girls. If the leaders treat them with respect and respects their decisions, the rest of the team members typically will emulate that behaviour. There can always be team members who don’t follow those cues and the team leadership will have to work with them to get them on board.