2020 BT Young Scientist winners reveal origin story of gender bias project

13 Nov 2020

From left: Elaine Burke, Alan O’Sullivan and Cormac Harris. Image: Connor McKenna/Siliconrepublic.com

At Future Human, BT Young Scientist 2020 winners Cormac Harris and Alan O’Sullivan discussed their project on gender bias.

Following on from their BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) win in January this year, two young innovators appeared at the inaugural Future Human event to chat with Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke about the genesis of their project and what it’s like to win the grand prize.

Now fifth-year students at Coláiste Choilm, Co Cork, Cormac Harris and Alan O’Sullivan took home the €7,500 prize for their project entitled, ‘A statistical investigation into the prevalence of gender stereotyping in five to seven-year-olds and the development of an initiative to combat gender bias’.

Over the course of the project, the teenagers conducted workshops with 376 five to seven-year-olds from a range of school settings with a number of different tasks including: choosing between gender-specific and gender-neutral toys; drawing and naming an engineer; and rating male and female competency at a number of gender-specific roles.

Handy resource kit

One of the findings showed that 96pc of boys drew a male engineer, while just over 50pc of girls drew a female engineer. Speaking with Burke, Harris said the topic was the result of thinking about what Leaving Cert subjects they would like to study once they finished transition year.

“We were talking to our friends, asking them what [subjects] they were choosing and what we found is that the majority of students who were choosing subjects like art and music were girls and the majority of students who were choosing subjects like construction and physics were boys,” he said.

“We were wondering where did this gender divide come in? So we decided the best way to figure this out was to go back to the very beginning, to five to seven-year-olds and to carry out some testing there.”

Off the back of their results, Harris and O’Sullivan developed a resource kit for schools to try and combat gender stereotyping. This includes a checklist for teachers to be aware of what they do in the classroom.

“It’s to get rid of the subconscious thinking because it’s all subconscious,” O’Sullivan said. In their own experience in school, they noticed that while girls were getting access to courses encouraging them into STEM, there was almost no effort to make boys aware of gender stereotyping.

Speaking of this, Harris said: “When we went back and we asked the students how they felt about male and female competency, the boys ranked themselves much higher than the girls ranked themselves in jobs. So we think it’s also important to, at a young age, to make an intervention to make sure that boys are aware of gender stereotypes as well.”

Slight change of plans

Harris and O’Sullivan were supposed to be gearing up for the 2020 European Union Contest for Young Scientists and the London International Youth Scientist Competition this year as BTYSTE winners, but Covid-19, unsurprisingly, put a stop to those plans.

The global pandemic has also disrupted the pair’s plans for further research, as continued testing would require access to schools that are already under pressure during Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland.

In the meantime, they’ve both returned to school and are preparing for their Leaving Cert in two years’ time. With the big changes that have come in the day-to-day life of a school during a pandemic, Harris and O’Sullivan have been very aware of the impact on the mental health of students.

“Especially in our age, I think [mental health will] be a massive factor, students coming under massive pressure, especially if we go online,” O’Sullivan said.

“Students might find it hard to have like the willingness to get up in the morning even though they’re at home and they don’t have that normal routine of going into school. It will definitely be a massive factor over the coming year.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic