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Coding is Cool

Girls are also great mathematicians

To not just cope with digital transformation in the years to come, but also drive it, you have to start by looking at the things that inspire people, pique their curiosity, and motivate them to learn new things. It is especially important to avoid stereotyping people and instead, see diversity as an opportunity. This is something Christine Regitz, Vice President for User Experience at SAP and member of the Steinbeis Board of Trustees, is committed to.

I’ve seen a really weird gift doing the rounds in Germany. All sorts of people (parents, grandparents, and friends) seem to enjoy giving this gift to girls. They’re T-shirts (typically in pink) with “Math is an Asshole” emblazoned on the front. Every time I see it, I’m speechless. And I’m politely understating things. That’s not the sort of present you should appreciate. It’s like a Trojan horse – on two levels. On the one hand it suggests that math is a pain or hard work. On the other, it’s saying that girls aren’t really made for math anyway. Both messages are toxic. We need to ask ourselves something: What does a pithy message like that say about the person wearing the T-shirt? And what does it say about us as a nation, the land of great writers and philosophers? There have to be better ways of investing in our future. I know it is meant to be (self-)ironic, but overall the statement just reinforces stereotypes and as an enlightened society, that’s something we cannot afford (and shouldn’t be able to afford). Incidentally, the same holds true if someone suddenly decides to replace the word math with something like computer science or technology.

Math, computer science, the natural sciences, and technology are not a playing field with a no-entry sign for girls (neither in terms of specialist topic nor from an intellectual standpoint), or a realm only reserved for the male sections of our society. Girls and women are just as at home in this area as a smartphone is at home in their purses, or they drive cars and boats, and fly airplanes, or they sit on the board of Europe’s largest transportation company, or they calculate orbits for space missions.

In times of transformation and quantum leaps in digital technology, it’s neither cool nor frankly appropriate to reinforce stereotypes or be derogative about women – even if the statisticians will now scream, because the figures prove otherwise and student numbers point to women supposedly not being interested in such subjects. This by no means proves that they’re not actually interested. All that the statistics say is that women are not represented in these areas. Maybe the approach being taken to interest girls and women in math, IT, and the natural sciences is wrong. Maybe the goals and methods used to teach math or science subjects are wrong. Or maybe some of the underlying factors are not right for more girls to discover that they have a talent for math, computer science, the natural sciences, and technology and for them to receive training in this area. Something definitely has to be done about this, because one thing everyone agrees on is that none of these topics are wizardry, there’s no big secret about them. There are plenty of examples and role models of women who work in all of these areas – women with a huge amount of expertise, even if they are usually only known as experts by people involved in the specialist area. Apparently, they are much less known among the general public, the media, and talk shows.

If we really do want to change things – which is essential, given the diversity and complexity of this world and the rate at which it is changing as a result of digital transformation – then the place where we need a fundamental shake-up is in education. If you want to meet the challenges of digital change as a society in whole in the future, you have to start in the place where curiosity and playfulness are still unrestrained and uninfluenced by clichés. The path ahead for mathematical and scientific interests is set in the very early years of life – and this applies just as much to boys as it does to girls. Inevitably, this is also key to all subsequent decisions in life, such as career choices, general setups, or development options – not just for individuals but also for society as a whole.

Is it possible to design a fast-track “education rocket” that sets to work early? This doesn’t mean we start turning children into IT nerds at kindergarten, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should teach kids how to swipe tablets and smartphones. But it can’t be wrong to allow children to explore technology and their environment through play, in keeping with each age group. They have chemistry sets, Lego, and dolls’ strollers, so child-friendly starter kits for the world of digital technology would provide an initial, low-threshold entry point. Digital education needs to be more challenging from the very first day at school, even if it is based on factors or a curriculum that is suited to each age group. A course needs to be set for children to gain insights into IT by forging links to math or even physics. And this should be a compulsory part of education. Seeing IT or math lessons as an option, isn’t an option. To have a fighting chance in any career – as an office clerk, a warehouse assistant, a surgeon, or a salesperson – you surely won’t win any medals without an education in digital technology. We’re convinced at GI that digital education must be provided from the perspective of technology, sociocultural aspects, and actual application. A fundamental understanding of how a technology works and what it’s capable of is just one part of the story. The other part is to understand how software programs are used, why they’re useful, and also issues such as copyright and data protection. A third aspect relates to the ethical and philosophical categories digital technology and applications fall into. To understand these aspects, separate teaching would be needed to establish a fundamental understanding and orientation, although this should also reflect interdisciplinary aspects.

People should think again if they believe girls prefer learning different subjects and are being left behind by digital education or are being stifled. Without wanting to question collective learning as a whole, individual subjects such as math, physics, or digital education could be taught separately. This would give girls a chance to learn and try things out without the influence of clichéd comments. A variety of tests and studies have shown that girls are even stronger and achieve better results in these subjects. This assumes, of course, that the curriculum is kept the same. Then acquiring knowledge is fun, unleashes creativity, and unveils potential. If you don’t start with the fundamentals, you don’t set the railroad switch for math, computer science, and digital education, and you miss the train – and the train is now accelerating. You also lose the race against time and miss out on all the talent, especially female talent. That, incidentally, means not just women in IT or women with an education in math, but also all the diversity they have to offer and the positions they strive for.

To put it plainly: Digital technology affects all areas of work, everyday life, our lives, and our thoughts. Not one stone will be left on another. But we should see this positively. With solid training and a fundamental understanding of digital technology and processes, there will also be lots of occupations for women where technical, mathematical, and digital know-how will be needed, just maybe not entailing any kind of detailed specialist knowledge: in healthcare and nursing professions, education and administration, in catering and restaurants, and in the manual trades. Getting involved, managing processes, and questioning processes corresponds to a deeply rooted female need to be part of what is happening. Why would women want to get left behind when it comes to digital solutions? It just doesn’t make sense. But they must – and will – recognize the developments of time. So if you actually don’t want to develop user interfaces or become a female engineer, you can thrive as the go-between and point of communication between software developers and end users.

More things need to be normal or a matter of course, with less stereotyping in a society of knowledge and diverse working environments. We need a 360° view based on different abilities to solve problems, revolving around different reference systems, experiences, and approaches. The challenges of digital change, already something of a challenge for us today and tomorrow, are highly complex and cannot be mastered with monocultures. That is also why we need to inspire girls early in math and computer science. So I would love to see lots of girls wearing a T-shirt with big letters saying “Coding is cool. I’m going for it!”