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Why don't girls study science? (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of the essay on attracting girls to science and technology. If you haven't already read Part 1, I suggest you do so now. It can be found here.



The problem of attracting girls to take SET subjects is not unique to Britain. Australia faces similar challenges and has tried a programme that as well as providing professional training for science teachers also gave schools hands-on resource kits, and connected them with professional female engineering mentors. They also encouraged girls to participate in extra-curricular SET activities and competitions. (Little and León de la Barra, 2009) Women are much better represented in the biological sciences and studies have shown that as early as grade one, girls are more attracted to the biological and social sciences while boys prefer the physical sciences. Starting from the basis that generally girls are more interested in issues surrounding human health and well-being and prefer practical involvement in activities rather than learning about abstract concepts, they devised a project entitled 'Attracting Girls to SET' which would offer to girls in middle and secondary schools in Tasmania a more diverse concept of engineering. The objective was to increase the engagement of girls in the traditional school science curriculum and they hoped to do this by offering hands-on, enquiry-based activities that would show how SET helps to solve environmental and social problems. As girls had reported wanting to help people, the earth and animals, it was felt that this approach would be more appealing to them. The majority of the resources used were commercially available world wide, though some resources were created especially for the project.

The learning styles of the girls were determined and it was found that girls: prefer to work in small groups; learn best with 'hands-on' activities; and that they enjoy practical experimentation and building things. They did not much like instruction and demonstration by the teacher, learning from the Internet or reading and answering questions from textbooks. As the project progressed, students became more aware of the uses of technology in their daily lives. Unfortunately, pre- and post-project surveys revealed no significant change in the girls' knowledge and acceptance of technology, though there was a suggestion that some technology skills may have been enhanced as a result of their participation, so though the authors of the paper felt that teachers could use the methods they had trialled to encourage girls to engage with SET, more suggestions are needed.

From 2006 there was a change in the statutory science curriculum for all students aged 14-15 in England and Wales. The new emphasis is on scientific literacy, the goal being for students' learning to enable them to participate competently in a world permeated by science and technology. The new curriculum takes on board the idea of situated learning and tries to ensure that authenticity and practical applications are at the core of the students' studies, rather than abstract ideas and theories. 'What research there is indicates that central to this decline are students’ perceptions that the abstruse theoretical content in physics and chemistry lacks relevance to and meaning in their lives.' (Osborne & Collins, 2001, quoted in Murphy et al. 2006) Though the new curriculum has been introduced to halt the general decline in interest in science subjects, particularly physics, it should, if the earlier research is to be believed, encourage more girls to stick with SET.

Murphy, Lunn and Jones (2006) compared the old and new curricula and trialled a new set of multimedia resources, 'Energy Foresight', to support the new topic of 'Radioactive Materials', which is part of the new curriculum. They found that the impact on girls' views of the relevance of physics was dramatic and their interest in the subject was greatly improved. The effect on boys was much less, though still noticeable. However, there were also some unintended consequences for the boys who liked the certainty of the old way of teaching 'facts' and were less happy with the more complex issues that they now had to cope with. For example the traditional curriculum, took one variable in isolation. Thus when considering the generation of power, sustainability was seen as wholly a 'good thing' and other aspects, such as the impact of huge windfarms on the landscape, were totally ignored. The new curriculum forces students to think about the complexity of the real world and some boys found this more difficult to cope with than the old certainties. Boys were: '...more likely than girls to ignore context or to discount it as extraneous, because it gets in the way of them seeing the science that they have to learn or the task they have to address.' (Murphy et al. 2006) It could be, therefore, that any initiatives that are more suited to the way girls learn might be detrimental to boys progress.

The obvious solution to this dilemma would be to teach SET subjects in single sex groups so that the teaching can be tailored to suit the preferences of boys and girls. Minna Salminem-Karlsson has produced a report on just such a project that was tried in Sweden. The municipal technology centre is trying two approaches to encourage young girls to choose technical professions. Firstly they offer 'gender-neutral technology' and secondly they are working with both single-sex and mixed groups. Salminen-Karlsson's report examines the results from the single-sex groups.

Municipal technology centres are supported by the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (NUTEK). Their remit is to provide technology education via afternoon and evening activities and though they are not tied to the official curriculum, they are supported by schools. Their aim is to make technology education pleasurable and they are part of an initiative set up because of the perceived lack of technologically competent workers. The assumption is that there is a large, untapped reserve of girls and women that can be recruited into technical education and jobs. Though they are free to design their own curriculum, they are hindered to some extent by the prevailing gender norms, unless and until the children are prepared to abandon them. Or as Salminen-Karlsson says, 'Thus the freedom of the centre to design their own activities is still subordinate to the general (gender-based) conceptions of technology in the education system, at least to some degree.' (Salminen-Karlsson, 2007)

The pedagogical ideology in the centre is 'learning by doing'. Following the sort of guidelines previously discussed that are usually recommended as the best way to encourage girls to participate, the belief is that the reason girls are not as interested in technology as boys is that they were not encouraged to acquire the same experience of mechanical and technical objects when they were very young. Later, as they grow older, boys who did have these experiences see technology as their domain and resist any attempt by girls to take part. In this way, technological competence becomes an increasingly masculine attribute, which further alienates girls, especially when they reach puberty and are searching for their own adult, feminine identity. The recommended solution is to give the girls a chance to gain the practical experience of tinkering with tools and artefacts that they missed when younger. By doing this in single-sex groups that are comfortably female and by choosing technologies that have more feminine attributes (such as making jewellery), the girls are expected to gain confidence.

The municipal centres are not, however, only open to girls. These days many boys lack practical expertise in use of tools. They might be confident users of computers, but they have not had the basic hands-on experience of making things that boys are traditionally expected to acquire. The basic areas covered by the centre featured in the report were mechanics and electronics. From the age of six upwards, children learn to use hammers, saws, soldering irons and drills. They are mostly shown how to make mechanical toys but they also build electronic devices. Older children work on their own projects, with support from the staff in the centre. The whole idea is to make technology fun. It was assumed that the girls would be more interested in the aesthetic aspects of the design and building of projects, so this was covered too. Groups were single-sex or mixed.

Single-sex groups were thought to be a good strategy to get girls to continue their science studies. Based on findings that boys tend to dominate practical activities, often reducing the girls to passive watchers, the single-sex groups were assumed to be the answer to this problem. However, the results reported by Salminen-Karlsson are equivocal. Referring to other research, she says: 'Though they are appreciated by the students, they do not improve the academic achievements of the girls.' (Salminen-Karlsson, 2007) However, in terms of encouraging girls to continue with their science studies, single-sex groups did prove more effective than mixed groups and their self-confidence did improve.

In fact, the single-sex groups at the centre were not created for pedagogical reasons but were instead an attempt to even up the numbers of girls and boys being taught at the centre. Even so, because of the demand from boys, some groups that should have been single-sex ended up mixed. Making quotas for girls did help the organisers to achieve a more balance gender mix, but it did not completely solve the problem. Though boys' groups in a school setting are often said to be disruptive, this was not found to be the case in the technology centre and the boys were interested in the practical tasks. The only case where the boys' behaviour could be challenging was when they had a female instructor and they questioned her legitimacy. The courses with male instructors resembled what is often described as 'male socialisation into technical tinkering'. (Mellström, 2004, quoted in Salminen-Karlsson, 2007) In other words, the traditional male tinkering that takes place somewhere away from women, the garage or workshop, for example. Many parents, especially single women with sons, were happy that their boys were receiving this type of initiation into such typically male matters.

There were, therefore, two parallel activities going on at the centre. Girls were being encouraged to enter the male-dominated sphere of technology while boys were being reassured that technology equals masculinity. Thus, while single-sex groups can benefit girls they can exacerbate the problem of boys rejecting the idea that girls can successfully do technology. Ideally, all girls should be in single-sex groups while all boys should be in mixed groups. Clearly, this is impossible! Besides, as Salminen-Karlsson says, 'To perform conscious gender work in changing boys' way of working with technology is even more difficult in a leisure-time activity, where the satisfaction of the boys is important, as they have no obligation to take part in the activities, but can drop out at any time they want.'

To complicate matters further, there were a few girls who were different from the others and whose interest in technology was like that of the boys. The single-sex groups did not work well for them because they did not find the interests of the other girls challenging enough. These were the girls who were more likely to pursue a technical profession after leaving school and would probably have done so, even without the centre. Whereas many of the girls enjoyed the social side of the activities more than the activities themselves, these girls enjoyed the technical activities purely for the sake of creating something interesting.

The question of whether the group had a male or female teacher has not been much studied, but the female instructors at the centre had all crossed gender boundaries to some extent. The study found, however, that it was difficult for a woman to introduce a more feminine version of technology to male students because it could lead to her technical competence and validity being challenged. Therefore, if the aim of a project is to introduce a less masculine view of technology to boys, it needs to be done by a male teacher. (Salminen-Karlsson, 2007) If men teach technology to girls, they must be aware that they need to foster good personal relationships with the students and be ready to discuss the wider implications of the project with them rather than just providing technical know-how.

In her conclusion, Salminen-Karlsson raises the ideological problem of trying to change the girls to fit the traditional way of doing technology but not changing the boys. 'To a certain extent, the boys at the centre were "boys as usual", tinkering with "technology as usual", while the girls were expected to become "the new breed of technology girls".'

Alison Phipps considers this aspect in more depth in her paper on deconstructing the dominant discourse around women's equality in SET. Liberal feminists have been at the forefront of initiatives intended to equalise numbers of males and females in science, engineering and technology and they traditionally minimise gender differences, believing that gender difference is due to the way children are socialised from birth.
'Socialisation theory, Walkerdine (1988) argues, is a theory of female lack which constructs girls and women as passive objects rather than active subjects in relation to social norms and expectations. A construction of girls as essentially passive was implied in the activists’ assumption that girls’ lives would be inescapably structured by the toys they were given and the representations they were exposed to in popular culture and education, and that they would uncritically and even unconsciously follow social stereotypes when making educational and career choices. Jane’s use of the word ‘indoctrination’ implies a female subject who serves as a blank slate on which normative femininities can be inscribed.' (Phipps, 2007)


The methods suggested and adopted by the various initiatives had all tended to focus on girls' supposed lack of confidence in a male domain. The assumption has always been that if girls can become more confident and assertive, they will naturally feel more at home in SET subjects. But do girls actually lack assertiveness? Lynda Measor in her study tells how some of the girls refused to wear the safety spectacles in the lab. In doing this, they were defying a firm rule imposed by their teacher, who also happened to be the headmaster. This was in only the second week in their new school in circumstances where obeying rules was the norm. (Measor, 1983, p 21) Girls are also assumed to dislike SET lab work because it is seen as dirty and possibly dangerous, yet many girls are keen horse riders, a pastime that is not only dirty but is also a dangerous sport. As Phipps says (quoting Woodfield et al., 2005), 'Girls and women, then, were seen as lacking in confidence and imagination, as well as being at the mercy of their parents, teachers, peers, society, and their biology. These constructions of female passivity and insecurity appear to undermine the broader political message about women being as capable as men in science, engineering, and technology, and also take little account of the fact that feminine subject positions may allow girls and women to express their insecurities more easily than boys and men, which does not mean that their levels of insecurity are necessarily higher.' [My emphasis] Thus the current initiatives are working on the basis that girls are suffering from a lack, whether it's of confidence or assertiveness or a true understanding of what SET is like, and that if only this lack could be somehow corrected, all would be well. It seems that this is a gross simplification of what is going on.

The situation is very complex, something not usually recognised by the people running the initiatives. As Phipps points out, 'The activists’ statements also showed a tendency to homogenise masculinity and femininity, to construct sex as synonymous with gender, and therefore to imagine that girls would have a straightforward relationship to femininity, and boys to masculinity.' (Phipps, 2007) As the Swedish technology centre discovered, students do not fit into neat categories. Some girls took a 'masculine' approach to the subjects and did not like being in all female groups and made to follow a more 'feminine' approach. There are no doubt boys who would prefer a more 'feminine' approach, yet at present, because it is more acceptable for girls to demonstrate 'masculine' characteristics than it is for boys to show their 'feminine' side, the needs of these boys are not currently being met. Even though Graham Hall in his paper on the best way to present maths to teenagers says that in general boys prefer a bottom-up approach while girls respond best to a top-down, problem based approach, he himself fared badly in the maths lessons at a traditional boys' school using the very methods that are supposed to work best for boys and it was only when he found himself faced with problems that needed maths to solve them that he discovered the motivation to tackle advanced level maths as a mature adult.

In encouraging girls to do science, we have to face the larger problem that in the media science is usually portrayed in a way that emphasises the 'masculine'. From the Big Bang versus Steady State debate of the 1960s to the recent arguments over the supposed dangers of the MMR vaccine and the current debates about climate change, the press present science as being about conflict between rival theories. It is often presented as being a battle with 'experts' fighting it out in the media and academic journals while their followers take sides for or against. In fact, most of science is about teamwork, cooperation and attention to detail, all of which are traditionally regarded as 'female' characteristics. Science itself is neither male nor female, or perhaps it is both? As Evelyn Fox Keller says, 'Science is neither a mirror of nature, nor simply a reflection of culture. It is the name we give to a set of practices and a body of knowledge delineated by a community – constrained although certainly not contained by the exigencies of logical proof and experimental verification.' (Fox Keller, 1987) However, while rationality and objectivity remain linked with masculinity and irrationality and subjectivity continue to be seen as feminine, the scientific mind will always be equated with the male mind. It is difficult to make the scientific establishment realise that traditionally 'feminine' attributes have something to offer science, yet Barbara McClintock who won the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology in 1983 for her work on genes and chromosomes said repeatedly that researchers should, 'hear what the material has to say to you,' that they should have an openness about their work and, 'let it come to you. Above all, one must have a feeling for the organism.' (Kirkup and Smith Keller, 1992)

In terms of promoting initiatives to encourage girls to take SET subjects, one would hope that the days of deliberate exclusion of girls was a thing of the past. There is, however, still a lot of unthinking bias. A very recent example, quoted in Charlie Butler's recent blog post and taken from Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, Goldacre writes: 'the MRSA looks like a ball. Bacilli look like a rod. You can tell the difference between them using 100x magnification – the ‘Edu Science Microscope Set’ at Toys’R’Us for £9.99 will do the job very well (if you buy one, with the straightest face in the world, I recommend looking at your sperm: it’s quite a soulful moment).' Male scientists all to readily assume that they are speaking or writing to people just like them.

Though in the longer term, there needs to be a greater acknowledgement that characteristics that are traditionally deemed 'female' are just as valuable as those that are deemed 'male', for the moment, there seems little alternative except to pursue the initiatives instigated by organisations like WISE. A better understanding of what science is really about will help young people of both sexes decide whether it is something they want to pursue further. There is, unfortunately for those looking for a quick fix, no one approach that will work with all girls and being inspired by the right role model can undoubtedly encourage some girls to continue with a subject that they would otherwise have dropped. It is for this reason that many females working in technical subjects are very excited that the Barbie doll's next career will be computer engineer. 'Barbie is the only girls brand that allows girls to try on different careers [...] she is always a fashionista, but she’s also allowed girls to put on these different roles and play them out. Barbie allows girls to experience all of the possibilities from model to pizza chef to CEO.' If the 'catch them young approach' works, then Barbie could prove to be as good a role model as any.




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Tags: ba education, girls and science
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