A couple of weeks ago I took part in a debate organised by the local chapter of the Triple Helix Society given the provocative title of ‘The Trouble with Women’, designed to debate why women are still found in such low numbers in the upper echelons of science. No doubt this title was meant to pull the punters in, and indeed we had about 100 people, predominantly students, in the audience. My fellow panellists were Ottoline Leyser, a renowned plant scientist and author of the wonderful booklet Mothers in Science, Simon Barron-Cohen, who researches the extreme male brain and autism, both academics from Cambridge, and Rosalind Arden, a geneticist working at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Simon and I had been paired in a previous Triple Helix debate a few years back called ‘Why women can’t do science’. Clearly this is an issue that exercises students today, but on neither occasion have they managed to get any of the panellists to agree either that women can’t do science, or that there is a problem with them. Nevertheless, despite our consistent stand on this fundamental issue, despite the fact that Ottoline and I are living proof that being a successful scientist and a mother are not incompatible, despite all the positive steps that are being taken to facilitate women’s progression, I came away from the evening depressed how slow progress is and how hard it is to see that changing any time soon.
This was a view reinforced subsequently by my attendance earlier this week at the In Government discussion meeting Widening Participation for Women in STEM, which prompted my last post. At this meeting again there were lots of upbeat facts and figures presented (although in fact I was only able to stay for the morning, for reasons which will be described more in my next post), lots of signs at a local level of change and improvement, many people doing splendid work across a wide range of sectors, all described in front of an audience of engaged and caring people. Nevertheless, there are signs that all is very far from well at grassroots level and that it is going to take a generation or more finally to resolve.
Why do I say this? Because at the debate I mentioned at the beginning of this post, during the Q+A at the end there were at least two people present who detailed stories of young relatives and friends, girls of course, who were still being given incredibly negative messages along the lines of girls can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc. Over coffee at the second event I was regaled with similar stories. Stories of schoolchildren who had started off with a love of maths but who were being systematically discouraged and demotivated by teachers and by peers. Of course this is anecdote not evidence. But out of an audience of around 100 if more than one person has familiarity with this situation it hints at a problem of non-negligible magnitude. It tallies with a story a Cambridge colleague of mine told me recently about a teacher saying to her 11 year old daughter that she ‘did maths like a girl’. I can’t begin to think what was meant to be conveyed by that message, but it was certainly not encouragement.
All the work many of us do to try to plug the leaky pipeline can only do so much at later stages if, as I’ve argued before, the girls never enter the pipeline. But what these anecdotal stories indicate is that the problem is not just the media, or low parental aspirations or ignorance of what scientists do, it is discouragement – or at least an absence of positive encouragement – coming from teaching professionals. Possibly they do it with the best of intentions (and I have no knowledge if the teachers were male or female), possibly from sheer ignorance of the reality of maths and science on their own part, but surely there must be a way to overcome such stereotyping before it spills over onto young girls who happen to exhibit an unexpected flair for maths or who express an interest in physics or engineering.
The Institute of Physics did a study of classroom attitudes towards girls in Physics, Girls in the Physics Classroom back in 2006 but almost certainly still relevant, in which statements such as the following were made.
• There is no recent English-based research into teacher–student relationships in physics classrooms. Past research and research from other countries suggest that boys receive more teacher attention than girls do in science classes although teachers are not aware of this
• Boys find male teachers more helpful and understanding than girls find teachers of either sex. There is evidence of differences in the amount and type of feedback that teachers may provide students. What evidence there is suggests that boys are more likely than girls to dominate class interactions and that girls are more likely than boys to receive feedback on the quality of their work rather than their behaviour, and the converse is the case for boys.
• The evidence from research suggests that it is likely that most UK physics teachers are aware of the issue of gender and classroom interactions but are not aware of how classroom interactions are mediated by their own and students’ beliefs about gender-appropriate behaviours in relation to physics.
• There is a discrepancy between teachers’ more cautious views about girls’ performance and confidence in physics and the students’ own views, both males and females. This may well be one influence in the web of influences that lead some girls who are well able to study physics to decide not to.
So, until we can remove some of these unconscious actions in the classroom, until teachers encourage children of equal ability of the two genders to the same extent, there is only so much we can do at a later stage to facilitate increasing numbers of women in the professoriat. The trouble with women? No, the trouble lies, at least in part, with deep-rooted societal expectations of women however unwittingly internalised and imposed.