Helen (heleninwales) wrote,
Helen
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Why don't girls study science? (Part 1)

This essay was written as one of the assessments for the BA Education course I'm doing part-time at our local college. It's rather long, so is in two parts.


'As students progress through schooling, their interest in, and liking for, science declines. This decline is more rapid for girls than for boys.' Is this a problem and, if so, what initiatives might be effective in reversing this trend?


Despite the fact that there are limited career opportunities in the pure sciences, a good background knowledge of science is essential in today's science and technology dominated world. Not only do we use technology all the time in our work and in our leisure, but also many of the big issues facing the world today require technological solutions. Knowledge of the scientific method and its limitations is, therefore, essential if people are to understand and choose between conflicting policies in issues like climate change, the future of nuclear power or whether a medical treatment is effective.

Girls make up fewer than 3% of apprentices in engineering and construction and only 15% of university engineering students are female. While Girls continued to outperform boys in the 2008 GCSEs, particularly in the higher grades (A*-C), with just under 70% achieving five or more compared with 60.1% of boys, only 7% of girls with A* or A at GCSE go on to study A-level Physics. (Source WISE Did you know... web page) Once science is no longer part of the national curriculum and students are free to choose which subjects they want to study, girls opt out of science, engineering and technology (SET). This gender imbalance continues in post-compulsory education, both in choice of degree subjects and on vocational courses. If women are not to be disadvantaged in a future where science and technology increasingly dominates every day life, this imbalance needs to be addressed and part of the Government's policy on the future of science and technology in the UK is to encourage women to take a greater role

The idea of encouraging more women to take SET subjects is not new. The Women's Engineering Society (WES) was founded in 1919 to promote the study of engineering and to enable women working in the industry to meet and provide support. (IET 2010 online). The generally accepted explanation as to why girls are not attracted to SET subjects and the basis of most of the initiatives intended to encourage girls to continue to study these subjects is the idea that science is not merely seen as male dominated but somehow intrinsically 'masculine'. (Measor, 1983, p. 17) The old Victorian idea that sex differences have an inherent biological basis and that no attempt should be made to overturn this natural order has, thankfully, almost entirely been rejected in favour of a socially constructed model of gender. According to Kelly: Each sex, when educated with the other, is at puberty almost driven by developmental changes to use subject preference and where possible subject choice as a means of ascribing its sex role. (Kelly, 1981, p. 102) It thus seems natural that early adolescence is the point at which girls are most likely to switch off from science and similarly that boys should switch off from subjects like English as they try to assert their identities as male or female.

Lynda Measor quotes several examples showing how science is presented in secondary schools in a way that is more like to appeal to the traditionally 'masculine' ideal. As part of her research, she attended an open day intended to introduce middle school pupils to the science curriculum at the secondary school. This included tug-of-war experiments in which two teams of children tried to pull against a vacuum cup and a pyrotechnic display of flashes, sparks and explosions caused by chemicals, static electricity and batteries. The boys reacted well to the exciting displays. The girls, in contrast, found them frightening and much preferred the hamsters, rabbits and gerbils that were part of the biology presentation. However, the biology contained aspects that upset the girls, such as the story that went round that they would be required to dissect a rat. The boys were seen to favour the more gory aspects of the subject.

These responses continued after the children had transferred to the new school and began studying on a Nuffield science scheme that involved a lot of experimental work. Measor reports that the girls did not like the smells and felt that things like handling acids and using bunsen burners was dangerous and unappealing. The girls felt that the boys were not so bothered by potential risks and took the occasional minor burn in their stride. Ironically, health and safety advice, which was intended to ensure that the practical session went well, tended to further frighten the girls. The boys Measor observed, however, seemed to enjoy the frisson of danger.

Apparently minor mishaps, such as getting Indian ink on one's hands during an experiment, can seem much important to girls than to boys. Though Measor observed the teacher reassuring a girl that the ink would come off in a few days, the girl was not happy, saying, 'Tonight I have to serve sweets at a little bazaar my mum is running. This won't look very good to people will it?' This sort of reason may seem trivial to a male teacher, but is important to the girls and it is a valid concern.

Another reason that is usually given for girls' lack of enthusiasm for the subject is a lack of female role models. Usually science teachers are male and Measor notes some examples of bias against the girls from the teachers. 'The headmaster would welcome his class with, "Come in my merry men." One teacher, the head of the science department, always stood directly in front of the boys and talked to them almost exclusively.' And on another occasion: 'We seem to be dividing into two groups, those who can do it – and the girls.' (Measor, 1983, p. 27) However, simply substituting a female teacher for a male one is not necessarily the answer. At the school where Measor carried out her research there was a female science teacher, but the girls did not find her appropriately feminine. Her appearance was seen to be wrong because she did not dress in a conventionally feminine manner and she indulged in unfeminine activities like judo. The image the girls had of female scientists was: '"Lots of thick glasses, flat shoes, big feet, judo types with muscular calves and sensible clothes." It is the flat chested, flat heeled syndrome.' In other words, the girls saw that if they were to be successful at science, they had to be one of the boys. Being feminine and being a scientist were seen as incompatible. This unintended negative message seems to have been taken to heart by the Women's Engineering Society. In their guidelines on education and outreach they say: 'Members are not encouraged to engage in doing school visits without considering the message they are taking in, the impression they will make on the target group...' The page also points out: 'More mature scientists and engineers can connect with younger children to whom everyone appears old. Younger engineers and scientists are great when talking in secondary schools when they find they have more relevant experience, can connect via music or pc games or simply language. And are more up to date about qualifications and courses. [...] Preparation and presentation is key as a poor student experience can have a more damaging impact on the perception of engineers and engineering than no contact at all.' (WES online) WISE also seem to be conscious of their image and the team photo shows a bunch of young, fashionably dressed women sitting in a pub looking relaxed, with a couple of attractive young men amongst them. (WISE About us page online) The message the image sends is clear: you don't have to be a frumpy, unfeminine woman to do science.

Building on research done in the 1980s by people like Measor, a strategy was evolved to encourage girls to participate in science. Because gender identities are often regarded as socially constructed, it was felt that leaving science until secondary school age was too late. Attitudes are already well entrenched by that age. Thus most initiatives stress the need for starting when children are young. Christine Brown of the University of East Anglia lists a number of key points. The assumption is that boys start school with a better basis for tacking technological subjects. 'Boys tend to gain experience of investigating and making things which have scientific or technological aspects of watching and helping men. The toys they are given also build up and reinforce this kind of experience.' Brown points out that girls need positive support and extra help to make up for this lack. The key things she outlines are:

  • more time on their own initially to gain experience of things which are already familiar to the boys.

  • time to talk over their ideas with their teacher and help to wean them away from the tendency to hang back.

  • equal access to materials and equipment, particularly those they are not familiar with, such as hard materials like wood and metal. This should be carefully monitored, especially in group work situations.

  • equal access to help and encouragement from teachers and other adults. Time given to boys and girls should be monitored to ensure equality of attention.

  • Activities which add a scientific and technological dimension to everyday objects or events which are already familiar to them, for instance making a working model of a swing.

  • to participate in scientific and technological activities which are socially or environmentally relevant such as designing a foot-bridge to provide a safe crossing over a busy road.

  • encouragement to recognise that successful achievement in scientific design and technological activities is valued highly like good writing or mathematical problem-solving.


Brown gives a number of examples of good practice, such as allowing girls to work individually and also to encourage pair work, both with another girl or with a boy. She also mentions the dangers to watch out for when girls work with boys, such as girls allowing the boy to do all the work while they watch passively. There is a useful checklist of questions to keep in mind, which covers aspects such as ensuring that girls and boys get equal opportunities to learn, equal access to materials and the teacher's attention and making sure that the learning materials show women and girls being as active and able as the men and boys. Topics should include ones that are appealing to girls and the relationship with everyday life needs to be stressed. Female role models should be available and the female teachers need to set a good example when dealing with technical and scientific equipment. All these points form the basis of the initiatives currently in place to encourage girls to participate more fully in SET subjects.

Other teachers and researchers have reached similar conclusions to Christine Brown. Graham Hall, in an article in Mathematics Today, explains how he has observed that the boys in his A-level Computer Science classes tend to favour a bottom-up mechanical approach to the subject while girls favour a top-down, problem driven approach. Though the results of their completed projects may be of similar complexity and require just as much knowledge of programming, the boys tend to find a 'cool' bit of code and then try to think of a use for it, whereas the girls are more likely to start with a problem that needs solving and then work out how the computer can provide that solution. Starting with the basic building blocks, which is the traditional way of teaching programming and many aspects of science, therefore appeals to boys but not to girls.

The various initiatives in place today follow these guidelines. I have already mentioned the education and outreach done by the Women's Engineering Society. Other examples include JIVE which is a five year project funded by the European Social Fund that was set up to address occupational segregation in the Science, Engineering, Construction and Technology (SECT) sectors. It is a UK national partnership led by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology at Bradford College.

The London Engineering Project runs a programme of events aimed at attracting girls into engineering subjects. They list a number of ways they promote the idea that girls can and should do engineering. The idea of making SET relevant to real life is specifically mentioned: 'We design our STEM activities or projects to appeal to both girls and boys, so that everyone is engaged. At the LEP we always provide a context for the activity so that students can see how the problem relates to the real world and the importance of the work done by engineers.' They also run training courses for teachers and others who are involved in teaching the subject or who are involved in encouraging young people to enter engineering as a career.

The UK Resource Centre for Women doesn't merely provide encouragement to girls but sets out to change the way SET subjects are taught: 'Rather than focusing solely on increasing the numbers of women in SET, our input as providers of training, advice, practical support and gender-mentoring shapes the development of gender-inclusive curricula, teaching styles and wider learning environments. Women into Science Engineering and Construction (WISE) is yet another well established organisation whose aim is to even up the numbers of males and females in the SET subjects and related careers.

As part of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, the Government has set up a group to monitor the progress of various initiatives. Their objective is to: '...review, advise and support the progress of the Government's strategy for women in STEM as set out in A Strategy for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, DTI 2003'. The long-term vision for the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) agenda is:

'An environment in UK science, engineering and technology education, employment, research and policy-making in which women contribute to, participate in and share the benefit equally to their male counterparts. To ensure that the UK knowledge driven economy benefits from the inclusion of the talents of the whole population and that women benefit from the opportunities afforded by it.' (SET Fair, DTI, 2002)


With all these organisations and initiatives attempting to encourage girls to take SET subjects beyond GCSE, how well do these schemes work in practice?

(Continued here...)
Tags: ba education, girls and science
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