On our recent vacation to Loon Lake, Wisconsin, I made some observations about girl style and boy style. My husband John was much in demand to drive the Starcraft speed boat for the nine kids at our family cottage. As his spotter, I sat backwards and watched the kids riding the tube or skis or wakeboard: to be sure they were safe and to relay their hand signals (“faster” “slower” “stop!”) to John – while of course taking pictures of all the fun! This was a small group of children, ages seven to eighteen, with six boys and three girls, who participated in dozens of speed boat runs over six days.
Most the kids wanted to do tricks while riding the fast-moving tube – such holding their hands up, kneeling or standing up. Our first day out, I got tired of the boys energetically blocking the girls from any participation. After enough of this, I set up a girls-only ride to encourage them to get started. The two teenage girls took several runs with the seven year old between them on the tube. Then the big girls took some runs by themselves. On one of these runs, I saw the girls do something I had never seen before: they held hands and balanced against each other so that both could stand (see Photo 1). The boys were out for themselves – sometimes even holding each other down in their efforts to do the best trick (see Photo 2). After their girls-only ride, the girls seemed more willing to compete for speedboat runs.
My vacation observations are not statistically-valid but the competitive behavioral patterns are interesting nonetheless. For more, check out “Are Men Really More Competitive Than Women?” by Melissa Lafsky (2008) who commented on insights into the underlying sources of the observed gender differences in an early version of the research paper “Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society” by Uri Gneezy, Kenneth L. Leonard, John A. List (2009).
Because of my professional work with the Anita Borg Institute, TechWomen, and the American Association of University Women, I am frequently asked what can be done to increase the number of girls and women in STEM, and particularly in the very-competitive technical fields. After observing some highly-successful programs (such as that of Dr. Maria Klawe at Harvey Mudd College and Dr. Jane Margolis and Dr. Allen Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse work at Carnegie Mellon), I know that fast and effective change is possible. The best way to start is not to pretend that girls and boys are the same but rather to give girls a good beginning: a chance to have fun, to experiment and succeed in a supportive environment before taking on the whole world.
Images Copyright by Katy Dickinson 2013