By Laura Brogi
We are living in the 21st century, the age of big data, artificial intelligence and environmentally-friendly inventions, however, in the majority of developed countries the entrance into this fast-growing and dynamic sector seems to be precluded to women. Indeed, the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is mostly populated by young graduate males and characterized by a dramatic gender-pay gap (OECD, 2017). In particular, among Western countries, Italy displays noteworthy gender imbalances: approximately 59 % of Italians graduated in STEM in 2017 were men, while in the other fields female graduates prevailed. But, why is this the case? According to recent studies conducted in Italy, negative gender stereotypes are among the causes that prevent female students from pursuing a career in the scientific and technological sector. Indeed, social conditioning and exposure to gender-biased teachers may have a detrimental effect on girls’ performance in mathematics and also decrease their level of self-confidence in scientific subjects with long-term effects on their career paths. Therefore, new policies should be implemented, aiming at dismantling these misconceptions and boosting the female self-confidence in STEM.
On this regard, action has already been taken in Italy with “Girls code it better” (GCIB), a project launched by Men At Work (MAW), an Italian Employment Agency, and currently involving 53 schools and 1413 middle-school female students. Supervised by a school teacher and an expert in the field of STEM (the coach-maker), during the course of the academic year these girls attend extra-curricular courses of coding, informatics and technology with the scope to become more familiar with the scientific subjects and develop their own technologically-advanced “product”. The initiative has reached such a success and scale that this year, on the 18th of May, the girls of 22 Italian schools had the chance to participate at an event taking place in Milan, in the main campus of Bocconi University, and organized by GCIB, the University of Bologna and the Harvard Kennedy School. The aim of this event was twofold: on one hand, the organizing institutions hoped to make school teachers and students’ parents more aware of the dramatic consequences of gender stereotypes through the presentation of the related research projects carried out by scholars of the involved universities. Secondly, the event was born with the intent to provide the girls of GCIB with new role models in the field of STEM, as well as to give them the opportunity to exhibit the works which they developed throughout the year.
Therefore, the entire day was full of activities directly involving the participating schools. Upon their arrival in Milan, the girls attended a conference where two female professionals working in Microsoft and some female students of Bachelor in Management and Computer Science (BEMACS) at Bocconi University told their experience in the field of STEM. What does it mean studying STEM? What are the main challenges for female professionals in this sector? How can women improve the society by working in STEM? These are only few questions that the guests answered through direct examples and inspiring videos.
Afterwards, an exhibition took place in the hall of Bocconi University. New benches for the school garden, cleaning robots, anti-theft magnets for clothes, a temperature and humidity recorder (the Season Box) and a voice controller are some inventions displayed by the girls participating at GCIB .
These products are the result of a creative process starting with a brainstorming session and followed with coding and electronic classes. Firstly, divided into teams and under the directions of the coach-maker, the girls should answer to the question “What can we do to improve our school?”. Several projects aiming at protecting the environment and improving the school’s facilities usually come to their mind, but the students should be able to select only the feasible ones which can turn their ideas into a tangible product. In this phase, the coach-maker is the key player: “It is important to understand the abilities and interests of the girls and to organize the courses in a way that meets the students’ needs”, as a coach-maker taking part at the event explains to us. For this reason, the students are assigned to different teams involved in a specific phase of the production process: some girls attend classes of coding and informatics, while others learn the basics of web designing and 3D printing. In the end, thanks to the coordination of these groups, the final work is delivered and ready for ensuring more comfortable and environmentally-friendly classrooms.
The team-working activities and the different steps of the production process represent the core part of this project, aiming at increasing girls’ self-confidence in their scientific skills as well as encouraging them to further continue their studies in STEM. So, a natural question is: has this method allowed GCIB to reach its objectives? Hopefully, the answer is positive. From the words of the participants at the project, it is clear that, not only these girls are extremely proud of their final product and enthusiastic about the overall experience, but most of them are also looking forward to attending other coding or technology classes besides continuing their studies in the scientific sector.
However, can the effects of the program go beyond the expected outcomes? Again, the answer is positive and the testimony of this girl provides a proof of our guess:
“Firstly, my grand-mum didn’t want me to attend the coding classes: she thought that they were useless. Then, when I started to tell her about what I was doing during the hours of lesson and to show her the video-game we were planning to create, she realized the importance and the difficulties of the task and started to support my project.”
Therefore, it seems that this project may have further implications on those involved in the network of relationships of the participating students and further research on this issue is encouraged. Indeed, this initiative may represent a simple and effective way which, in cooperation with policies more targeted to the labor market, could eradicate the traditional gender-biased misconceptions of the Italian society and guarantee a greater equality of opportunity to all women.