Girl power

CYBERGIRLZ IS currently conducting an all-girls marathon in which they’ll feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes (photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
CYBERGIRLZ IS currently conducting an all-girls marathon in which they’ll feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes
(photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
‘Sometimes, when a teacher asks a ques tion and I know the answer, I’m too shy to answer, because boys don’t always react in a nice way. It’s hard to feel com pletely at ease in such an environment,”-- says Shaked Efroni, 16, the only girl in her technology class. A few weeks ago, Efroni took her fve-point math matriculation exam and she is currently preparing for other exams, including fve points in physics, 10 points in software engineering and fve points in robotics.
Efroni is a diligent student, but at the end of last year, the masculine environment at her school almost overwhelmed this bright, quiet student.
“I was supposed to submit my fnal matriculation project, but I was so stressed out that I couldn’t get my work done,” Efroni recalls. “I was even considering transferring to a different subject, one in which I would have friends who would be supportive of me. In the end, I fnished my work, submitted my project and even received a score of 100, but getting there had been really rough.”
It turns out that even in 2018, gender is an important factor in students’ success on matriculation exams.
“When you’re the only girl in the class, you have no one to turn to,” Efroni explains. “The teachers help, but it’s nicer when you have a friend you can work together with or whose notes you can copy if you missed the previous lesson. For the most part, boys don’t take notes – some of them don’t even bring a notebook to class with them. So I make a really big effort not to miss any classes, because I know if I do, it will be extremely diffcult to catch up on the material I missed.”
In order to strengthen the female technology students’ self-confdence and feeling that they’re capable of succeeding, the Center for Cyber Education at the Rashi Foundation founded CyberGirlz: a community of thousands of girls from seventh to 12th grade who have a knack for technology, mathematics and science.
To help them, CyberGirlz is currently conducting an all-girls marathon that provides an environment in which they’ll feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes.
“Boys generally have more self-confidence than girls, so they’re more verbal during class,” says Noy Shmueli, 17, from Nahariya, one of five girls in the technology course. “They are very arrogant and think they’re smarter than we are, even though the girls work harder, are more organized and are generally more successful. At first, when I realized this, I thought maybe I’d made a mistake in picking this subject, and that maybe I wasn’t cut out for technology.”
“When I was in ninth grade, I was accepted into the Magshimim Cyber Program, but when I saw that I was the only girl – among the instructors and students – I decided to drop out. But now I regret that I gave up.”
Shmueli recently took her five-point math matriculation exam and will soon take her 10-point computer science and fve-point physics exam, but the road has not been smooth.
“After I had matured a bit, I made the decision to take my studies more seriously and not let this issue bother me or prevent me from learning what I want.
I realized that I had to view the glass as half-full. For example, because there are only a few girls in the class, we get more attention from the teachers.”
ACCORDING TO the Education Ministry, only 32% of students who took the five-point computer science exam in 2014 were girls. This is an increase of only 1% from 2004. On the other hand, the situation with the five-point math matriculation has improved and now about half of the students taking the exam are girls.
Most research studies that have been done on this subject show that the obstacles that prevent girls from studying robotics, computer science and other sciences are competition, the feeling of intolerance, and teaching styles that encourage quick responses and don’t leave room for working out answers in a thorough manner.
Moreover, many researchers claim that one of the culprits is the difference in self-perception. When boys succeed in an exam, they tend to attribute this to their own abilities. Girls, on the other hand, tend to attribute their success to external factors, such as claiming the exam was easy, instead of believing they did well because they are extremely capable. When it comes to failures, the situation is reversed: boys tend to blame the test or external circumstances, whereas girls will engage in self-doubt.
In 2009, a large-scale experiment was carried out in the UK among 700,000 female state school students. Results showed that girls who’d studied in single-gender classes attained higher scores in math and science. In addition, girls who were doing poorly in their studies and subsequently moved to all-girls schools, succeeded in raising their grades considerably.
Tali Ben-Aroya, 32, is the founder and director of the CyberGirlz program. She is a graduate of the IDF 8200 cyber intelligence unit, and a startup founder with experience in Silicon Valley and in Israel. After achieving great success in the hi-tech sector, she decided to make a sharp career change and began her work as a social activist.
“There’s no difference between men and women’s capabilities,” Ben-Aroya says. “Boys and girls learning 10-point computer science have the same capabilities. But their social experiences are completely different.”
What kind of effect does this have?
“The atmosphere in classes made up mostly of boys is much more competitive than classes in which the gender balance is much more even. When a teacher asks a question, boys tend to reply with the first idea that pops into their head, whereas girls prefer to plan how they want to respond before speaking up, and as a result don’t get to answer as often. In general, girls tend to learn better in smaller groups that discuss issues and are less competitive. Such settings, however, are not often seen in the public school system.”
What other gender issues exist in the field of education?
“Social messages are the strongest. Our society tends to encourage boys to aspire to greatness and succeed, whereas we don’t push girls to take chances as much or grapple with challenges. Our goal is to alter this attitude. When a female student comes to one our marathons and sees lots of other girls just like herself, she blossoms. The atmosphere is more cooperative and the girls feel they are more capable. For our marathons, of course we handpick great teachers, but we also make a special effort to create an inclusive atmosphere and are thoughtful about how we teach the material.”
Did you personally experience these types of gender problems?
“When I was in high school, I studied physics, chemistry, technology and fve-point math; in the afternoons, I also took computers. It didn’t bother me much that the classes were made up mostly of boys. When I was 27 and working as a product manager in the US, I was the only female manager. For the frst time in my life, I felt like I didn’t ft in. In my next job, I was also the only woman, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to succeed in such a situation. I thought to myself, where are all the women who studied with me in high school and university? Why aren’t they in managerial positions like me? I was so unhappy being the only woman.”
What goals have you set for yourself as a community leader?
“If we can help a number of girls pass their matriculation exams in technology felds, there will be more women in IDF cyber units, who will continue afterward in the hi-tech industry. There is such great potential here and I believe that we are capable of achieving our goal: that 50% of technology classes be made up of girls.”
THIS IS the second year the marathon is taking place. Last year, 200 girls participated in the event, which was held in five locations around Israel. This year, the marathon will be held in seven locations around the country with the participation of 500 girls. The CyberGirlz program attracts girls who’ve already decided to study in technology classes, but its staff is also constantly searching for girls who are considering joining these classes, but are hesitant.
“There are many factors that prevent girls from entering the cyber world,” says Ben-Aroya. “We’d love to expose these girls to the world of technology and prove to them that they’re capable of succeeding in these felds and that this world is open to them. We took 80 girls to Intel in Haifa and had them build an app. In a matter of hours, these girls were transformed from consumers into creators.”
Other activities the community is promoting include meetings between women working in technology felds and female potential technology students, workshops and even a summer camp. In all of these events, there are mentors who spend time with the new girls. Adva Batit, 17, from Ashdod, is a mentor who helps 10th graders.
“I hear a lot of girls say that they don’t want to go into technology because it’s considered a masculine feld,” Batit says. “I try to encourage them, reminding them that we all know that in reality girls are smarter than boys, and that if they have the desire to learn technology, they can do amazing things.”
One of these marathons was held at Blich High School in Ramat Gan. The classroom was full and all the girls had been sitting quietly for hours as they tried to solve the exercises.
“When you’re sitting among other girls who are learning the same material, you realize you’re not alone,” says Batit with a twinkle in her eye. “You finally feel like you belong somewhere and that is a very powerful thing.”
The girls who’ve completed the CyberGirlz program are excitedly looking toward their next goal: getting accepted into an elite IDF cyber unit.
What do you want to tell other girls who are vacillating, who are not sure if they should sign up for a technology class?
“Do what you love to do and don’t let anyone else influence your decisions,” says Noy Shmueli. “It doesn’t matter what the boys or your parents say. From my experience, the girls get higher scores than the boys, which shows that nothing can stop us if we put our minds to it.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner