Do we want to ‘feminise’ science teaching?

This week two rather different (scholarly) articles about women/girls and science were brought to my notice. One, a study of 14 year old schoolchildren began

‘Girls are more interested in studying science if topics are presented in a female friendly way.’

Or, as the draft press release I saw and which I was being asked to comment on screamed in a slightly more newsworthy way

‘Feminine’ Science Catches Girls’ Interest…..When scientific concepts in physics, information technology, and statistics were presented in a female friendly way – as for example relating to online shopping or cosmetic surgery – the mean level of girls’ interest rose. However, the boys’ interest in these topics simultaneously decreased.

(Summary of the article here; the full article requires a subscription).

The second article dealt with an older age group, those already at university (in the States), and considered the response of students to the gender of their instructors, and suggested

Importantly, women’s own self-concept benefited from contact with female experts even though negative stereotypes about their gender and STEM remained active.

In this case, the assumption is that the young women are so ambivalent about pursuing science that they need to have female role models in the form of their instructors to ‘inoculate’ them against the negative connotations of girls+science (the title of the piece ‘STEMing the Tide: Using Ingroup Experts to Inoculate Women’s Self-Concept in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)’ makes very clear what their interpretation is).

(A summary of this article can be found here; again the full article requires a subscription.)

Both these articles, coming from the broad literature of psychology, consider specific examples of stereotyping including self-stereotyping, and by implication stereotype threat that I wrote about before and which has been much discussed elsewhere (see Claude Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi). The basic premise is that girls see science in ways that threaten their self-image and so they turn away from it. But they can be encouraged to change this perception by appropriate external interventions: in the first case by the examples and manner in which the underlying science is taught, in the second by role models providing a positive counter-example.

When asked for a quote about the first study I was at first a bit perplexed. Superficially, of course it is good to do things that will encourage more girls to stick with science, but then I began to wonder at what cost. If my 14 year old self had been presented with teaching about lasers in the context of cosmetic surgery as was being proposed, I would have been completely uninterested by the case studies presented and simply seen it as pandering to the readers of Hello, had such a magazine existed. Moreover, it could have backfired and caused me to lose interest. I cannot tell how atypical that reaction might be, particularly amongst practicing scientists, but it seems to me that once again we are up against the problem of trying to find ways of teaching science to a mixed cohort of potential scientists and non-scientists. By teaching science in ways that may increase the number of girls who stick with it a bit longer, would we also be simultaneously losing some boys (as indicated by the study) and those girls who might already be switched on to science and able to cope with standard teaching? Would that ultimately benefit either science or more generally the population? I have no answer to that question. It is related to Alice Bell’s recent post about Science Education for All in which she argues that

‘school science should be for the many who do not take science further, as well as the few who do’ .

I absolutely agree with that sentiment, but I am not as convinced as she is that it is possible to teach the same science lessons to all 14-16 year olds in a way that will satisfy each and every one of them to achieve this goal. I don’t believe this is a case of separating out future scientists and non-scientists (as she says, at 14 they won’t know which category they fit in) or using Michael D Young’s categorization of ‘pure scientists, applied scientists and failures’. I think it is a distinction between those who are engaged and wish to be stretched against those who see science as a necessary evil or who are struggling. There will be more in the former category than simply would-be scientists. The latter are ones for whom some contextual ideas about science – which could include cosmetic surgery, but should include as wide a range of examples as possible – as well as ideas about risk, statistics and methodology may be more appropriate than formal equations or detailed pathways and mechanistic ideas.

The contextualization is what the first paper is concerned with:

Thus, if girls were interested in science and if they engaged in genuinely masculine subjects, they would threaten their own self-perception as well as their self-symbolization as feminine: prototypical representatives are primarily male, and – with an emphasis on masculine topics – scientific subjects have limited personal relevance for girls during adolescence when they develop their sense of being a woman. It then follows that the answer to the question, ‘How can we make scientific topics personally relevant and subsequently interesting?’ is to present scientific topics in a context that can be considered to be feminine.

In my idealistic view, a much better solution to the problem identified here would be to reduce the early socialization of children in which young girls are encouraged to play with Barbie dolls (the dolls who presumably would be clear targets for cosmetic surgery at a later stage of ‘life’) whereas boys get to build rockets from Lego: I use stereotypes deliberately here . It is known that the disparity in interest in different sorts of scientific issues between adolescent boys and girls is much less in the developing world where, I would posit, this socialization into stereotypes is less . So patching up the science teaching at 14 to correct a set of problems generated earlier, probably at the expense of losing other children’s interests (of both genders, although an additional strategy might be to have single-sex teaching, far too large a topic to be included for discussion here) may not be the optimum solution. But, that is my personal opinion, and others may not agree that using examples such as cosmetic surgery to keep girls interested in science is merely a sticking plaster solution.

The second study is perhaps more interesting and relevant, in that it suggests how very small changes can be significant in retaining young women in the pipeline. These are students who are opting in to science courses at university although, since this is based on a US study, this does not mean they are all majoring in science. Here the idea is that female instructors act as role models for girls who otherwise may think of science as ‘not for them’ and reject it for further study. The language of the paper is interesting, using the terminology of ‘infection’ of negative stereotypes which need to be ‘inoculated’ against. But it also shows the relevance of role models, with whom students can identify or to whose roles they might aspire:

women [who] encountered other women who were experts in science, math, and engineering, [they] expressed more positive implicit attitudes toward STEM… showed more implicit identification with these disciplines …, exerted more effort on difficult math tests…, and felt more efficacious about their ability and future performance…. compared with other women who encountered male STEM experts.

Thus, there is clear evidence demonstrating that the visibility and accessibility of female instructors can make a significant difference to how the female students both viewed themselves and the subject, and also how they performed. This is the sort of fairly simple intervention strategy advanced by Steele and shown to be beneficial in overcoming stereotypte threat. So, if we want to keep girls in the pipeline, having visible female role models in higher level roles can only be beneficial. One would hope most university departments follow the policy my own adopts of ensuring all 1st years are exposed to female lecturers.

Both these studies are testament to the subtlety and wide range of issues which need to be addressed if the problems of keeping women in the scientific pipeline are to be solved. They address the relatively early stages, and are therefore more specifically relevant to the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, where the numbers of women start off much lower than for biomedical sciences. Undoubtedly teachers and lecturers should bear these ideas in mind when preparing material for their courses. Keeping the pipeline healthy at later stages will only be possible if the ‘feed’ into the pipeline is itself in a healthy state.

This entry was posted in Education, Women in Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Do we want to ‘feminise’ science teaching?

  1. Kausik Datta says:

    Great post, Athene. My views on this issue are possibly spectacularly uninformed, but when I read about the first study you alluded to, my initial thought was: who writes this bilge?

    I think you have brought up the correct explanation for this observation. It is not so much how the girls and boys perceive science; it has more to do with how young girls and boys are pre-primed with gender stereotypes much before they encounter any science as an academic discipline.

    The talk about women role models is all very fine, and I am sure, highly beneficial, too. However, perhaps it is important to look at similar situations and educational systems outside the US. In the developing country where I grew up, the emphasis for ALL students in school has been the gathering of knowledge in a fixed curriculum where subjects have to be learned. The upside of that is that every school student has to undergo at least 3 years of basic science courses in the curriculum before reaching a point where a student decides to choose a particular stream for further study – science, humanities, commerce, economics, and so forth.

    In my country, we have no dearth of promising young women researchers in various scientific disciplines, perhaps simply because the educational system doesn’t force down absurd and contrived contextualizations early on; for example, studying about LASER is for knowing about what it is and how it generally works, and not about harping irrelevantly on one of its many uses, such as cosmetic surgery.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Up to a point, Lord Copper. I spent my teenage years at a Rudolf Steiner school, which, although full of homeopathic woo, did its very best to expunge gender stereotypes from an early age. In craft classes, the girls did woodwork and metalwork with the boys, and the boys did spinning and sewing with the girls. Yet when I found myself teaching chemistry to 14-year-olds at the school (the reasons why I shall not go into right now), the girls complained bitterly that they wanted to do a module about the science of cosmetics they’d been promised; and when I said I was going to do an ‘explosion’, the boys sat up and the girls nodded off.

    Go figure.

    • Fair enough. But school is only one part of the socialisation process. Those children presumably still read books, watched TV and had friends from other schools who were less far-sighted than the Rudlof Steiner one itself. The cultural influences that cause the stereotypes to form in kids brains are pervasive. As a parent myself I would have liked to have believed that my children were brought up gender blind, but the nursery they attended certainly had no such wishy washy liberal ideas, let alone subsequent schooling within the state system.

      As I said, my view is necessarily idealistic in wanting to eradicate these effects from an early age. But as Kausik says above, and as the data of international surveys shows, developed countries are much worse on this front than developing countries. The stereotypes are not necessary. And I don’t believe teaching science in a gendered way will necessarily result in more high class female scientists; but that is simply my personal opinion and I can’t back it up with evidence.

  3. Liz says:

    If presenting science topics in a ‘feminine’ way increases girls’ interest while decreasing boys’, and presenting them in a ‘masculine’ way does the opposite, it seems the conclusion from the first paper should be just to present scientific topics in context, with a balance of traditionally masculine and feminine contexts – although perhaps this is the real conclusion, as they say that ‘standard’ contexts are also masculine. The paper talks about single-sex science classes – but this neglects the fact that boys and girls vary, and there will undoubtedly be some girls who won’t respond to ‘feminine’ contexts. I suspect that I would have switched off had my science lessons focused entirely on supposedly feminine contexts (I went to an all-girls school, for the record) – and in any case, determining which contexts are suitable for boys and girls seems to me to be a dangerous business, potentially reinforcing stereotypes rather than trying to combat them.

    I think, as you say, that reducing the early exposure of children to stereotypes is a better tactic – and while that may not be possible for those who are already in school/university, the second study seems to offer a better a way of dealing with perceptions of science ‘not being for girls’ amongst this age group.

    Anyway. A thought-provoking post – thank you!

  4. I agree that some of the suggested ‘feminised’ contexts could be off-putting for some girls too. I think my reaction would have been like yours Athene. But as mentioned, any context could be off-putting for some young people, regardless of gender.

    I think the answer is to have a range of different contexts (to appeal across the board). We may not all want to know about the chemistry of mascara. But I certainly find anything to do with weaponry or aeroplanes utterly tedious. If every lesson the examples, metaphors, etc are military (for example) then that’s not going to engage me.

    I also think it’s important to offer students choice where possible. They themselves know what they find interesting. It’s surely more efficient to let them pick, instead of us trying to second guess it.

    For example, if they have to do a project on health and safety in the workplace, the student can pick what workplace they study. It can be a beauticians or a car factory if that’s what they want. They still have the same learning task to do, but they have been able to make it more interesting to them. Or, of course, (apols for obligatory plug) in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!, students ask scientists the questions *they* want to know the answer to.

    On the second study, the role models thing is powerful. Good reason to make sure we pay attention to having female science teachers, lecturers, etc. I wonder if the same effect happens for ethnic minorities?

  5. Steve Caplan says:


    Very interesting, but to me very sad. For me all of the subsequent arguments following the “bombshell” of “girl friendly topics being online shopping and cosmetic surgery” are minor compared to this statement that absolutely smacks of unfair and incorrect gender stereotype (at the least) and probably bias, and is extremely insulting.

    I think that if one caters to that sort of thing, it will have a negative impact on girls–particularly the many girls who are NOT drawn to “shopping and cosmetic surgery”. In the long run, this will only encourage society to treat women as though they are inferior to men, and have only petty and “female interests”. I don’t believe for a second that this would draw more females to stick with science.

    The right thing to do is for families to encourage their daughters to pursue science (or any academic endeavor that they find an interest in), by talking about science in daily life, by explaining and reading good books about science, by visiting children’s and science museums, natural history museums, etc. etc. Try to balance out the all pervasive cultural attack that comes from the media and the outside.

    Can this work? Yes. How do I know? Well, I think there is a precedent. For example, look at sports in the US. Look at how attitudes have changed radically from sports being a male-only enterprise, to the point where there is (I would venture) equality. Girls and women are drawn to sports, the sports clubs for (European) football have as many female athletes as males, including right on up through the high school age. How did this turnabout come in the age of Barbie dolls vs rockets for boys? With a concentrated effort at changing the attitude.

    Interestingly, in the case of football, although there are some nice female star role models on the US national teams, here at the local level I see that the vast majority of coaches are still male. So what does this mean? Perhaps we are putting too much emphasis on the need for teachers who are female or minority–whereas the key is to have teachers who are simply good at what they do and able to engage the students and capture their interest through personal (and non-gender related) charisma.

    • I’m glad you think sports in the US is now ‘equal’, but I wonder how true that really is. My understanding, maybe wrong, is that within colleges there was a change in law which required there to be equal amounts of money put into men and women’s sports if colleges were to continue to receive federal funding. That will give some kind of equality. But at a professional level do they both get equal air time for big finals (is there a female equivalent of the Rosebowl?), or are professional salaries equal? In the UK, there are sports (eg tennis, athletics and swimming) where there really does seem to be equality. But football (or in your language soccer)? Absolutely not. The FA only pays lip service to girls’ football at tender ages, and there are very few female professional teams. But the girls want to play, no doubt about it. I believe it is now the most popular sport for female students at Cambridge University!

      In the meantime, for science, we just have to keep plugging away at changing attitudes. I am delighted that the responses – both here and through twitter – are indicating agreement with my own personal revulsion to what was being proposed, particularly the idea of teaching science in the context of cosmetic surgery. I did wonder if I was being atypical, but clearly not! I should say that the study was done by a team from Luxembourg, so neither US nor developing world.

    • Cara says:

      I think that if one caters to that sort of thing, it will have a negative impact on girls–particularly the many girls who are NOT drawn to “shopping and cosmetic surgery”. In the long run, this will only encourage society to treat women as though they are inferior to men, and have only petty and “female interests”. I don’t believe for a second that this would draw more females to stick with science.

      There’s the further problem of society’s tendency to characterize traditionally “feminine” stuff as “petty”.

      So basically girls are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and no matter what genius they demonstrate in any area, they’re still just girls. Unless they do science in “standard” (male-approved) ways. In which case they’re exceptions to the “rule” of Group Woman and are very special (except that they’re still just girls where the rubber meets the road).

  6. alice says:

    Re: “those who are engaged and wish to be stretched against those who see science as a necessary evil or who are struggling”

    I guess you agree with 21st Sci’s “courses for horses” approach then! I also see the appeal of this arguement and have often v nearly been swayed by it on many occasions. However, I am too worried that you can’t tell which group people are in at age 14. I also like the idea that people might change their mind. Moreover, I think there are benefits for learning together (in order to build trust, as mentioned in my post – that people who dont become scientists should have an idea of what it’s like to be a scientist). I think there are compromises, but I also think these are worth it. Maybe there are compromise positions within this to be made – e.g. different curricula being taught in the same classroom, with options for swapping from one to another within the first year at least.

    Something that is rarely asked, but I think is relevant to the main points in this post, is what the students think. That British Journal of Educational Psychology seems to be trying, but seemed a bit clunky to me. People sometimes argue that it’s not up to kids – education is about sharing perspectives from previous generations and leading young people to adult life. However, educators need to know where their students are coming from, otherwise they’ll be ignored. This means actually asking young people, and finding ways for them to talk to you truthfully, and for you to understand them – intergenerational communication can be difficult! It doesn’t mean references to online shopping or cosmetic surgery, which just seemed ‘patronising, simplistic to me, but finding ways in which young people can reflect deeply and responsibly about their learning. One project was this – – it’s rather old now, and the research methods were, in my view, deeply problematic, but at least it tried to get this perspective.

    • Like you, Alice, I can be swayed both ways. As a practicing scientist I am worried that some of the courses are made simplistic in ways that are a complete turn-off for aspiring scientists. This is true at A level too (where some physics courses are written in a way that means that you don’t have to do A level maths simultaneously, but it makes the physics sometimes very feeble). But I do feel everyone needs to have a good grasp of the fundamental ideas. I thought you wouldn’t entirely agree with me given the points you and I made on a post on your blog last year! I think what I would like to see is opportunities for discussion of the consequences (can’t think of a better word) of science eg MMR debate, climate change, nuclear power sort of stuff, amongst everyone. This could just as well be in a sort of civics class as science lessons. I’ve previously advocated using Ben Goldacre’s book for study in media studies; putting science in pervasively is a good way to provoke these wider discussions. But would-be scientists, and those who like science but don’t want to pursue it very far, should be allowed to get to grips with the rigorous stuff that they may subsequently need.

      All this I write very much in a personal capacity. I have to put that caveat in, given my role in the Royal Society’s Education committee. This is not something that represents the RS view. But, based on the Report just launched by them advocating broader 16-19 curricula with an A level Baccalaureate, you can see that I don’t think 14 year olds, or indeed 16 year olds, should be divided up into science/non-science streams. Far from it, and I say that with my RS hat on.

  7. Sue Halliday says:

    I see so many girls and women at Catalyst science centre who have written themselves out of the science agenda. In mixed school classes many girls still hang back and let the boys get in there and do the experiments – it was like this when I was at school in the 60s and 70s and it shocks me that in this age of “equality” it still happens.
    If we don’t do something to encourage female access to science and to raise the “non scientists” level of dialogue with scientific subjects then we will have perpetuated something which for me is one of the saddest things that happens in my work…. a family comes to a science show…grandma and grandad looking after the kids while parents are at work. Grandma hands over the ticket and sheepishly states that she will not understand anything I do but she is sure the children will have a great time. At the end of my deliberately inclusive show that same Grandma will greet my with a wistful smile…”I wish someone had shown me that when I was at school – I would have loved to do science”
    If we remember that today’s grandmas are not Victorian but can be in their forties and fifties the statement becomes quite scary….Let’s change things soon please!