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.
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).
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.