Women are from Venus, like making cupcakes, like bright colours – particularly pink – and need to be told at frequent intervals that ‘math is meant to be hard’. That seems to be the verdict you could cull from many pop-psychology articles, with that last helpful piece of advice about math(s) to be found in a recent article in this genre on the Guardian’s US News blog. It purported to be advising parents about how to help their daughters enjoy science. Unsurprisingly, an article that advised cooking and doing jigsaws (even ‘when the girls had lost interest in them‘) as a way of reducing the gender divide in science, did not find much support at large amongst the community with whom I intersect. I can only hope that parents more generally did not mistakenly cut the article out and pin it to the fridge door with a large pink magnet, to remind them how to bring up their daughters.
This article seemed to be about reinforcing stereotypes in the most unhelpful way (as forcefully pointed out by Dean Burnett in his ironic Guardian science blog on Boys and Science written as a response), rather than recognizing the reality of recent studies. Telling girls explicitly that maths is meant to be hard appears to be exactly the worst kind of advice to give, as it will simply reinforce stereotype threat; this is that anxiety provoked by being asked to do something where there is a negative stereotype associated with your identity. Tell girls they can’t do maths and they will underperform in maths tests; tell white boys that Afro-Caribbean’s can run faster than them, and their time over 100m will be less than if they hadn’t been told. Claude Steele and his school of psychologists have mapped out the scale of stereotype threat manifested in many different situations, and one of those most studied has been girls and maths. Clearly Emma Gilbey Keller, the American author of the offending Guardian article, has not appreciated this concept; her main claim to fame seems to be having written the book ‘The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women who went from Career to Family and Back Again’. Her disciplinary background was not immediately obvious from a quick web search.
The article has already prompted several rebuttals. A neuroscientist’s take on it can be found here, written by Suzi Gage; a more general rebuttal in the Guardian was written by Chris Chambers and Kate Clancy, which pointed out the dangers of using gender stereotypes when the evidence for significant gender differences in how men and women approach life and tasks is so nuanced. As it happens a new psychology study, debunking the idea of clear gendered stereotypes, also came out this week (in essence telling us to scrub the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ myth of gross character trait differences concept). Written by Harry Reis et al (abstract here and lay article here) it examines a whole range of different traits, ranging from height and weight (where unsurprisingly the differences are significant)to aggression and empathy, where the differences are much less striking than popularly believed.
Nevertheless, in the UK the evidence is that overall more boys than girls take science and maths subjects at A level and, on average, they do better; the magnitude of this ‘gender gap’ depends on subject. It is in fact reversed for biology – more girls take the subject (by a ratio of about 4:3) and they get a higher percentage of A and A*s than the boys, using 2012 data; the ratio is completely inverted in psychology (as was also discussed this week in the Guardian), a subject in which approximately 3 girls take the subject for every boy, and the percentage of girls who get the top grades is twice as high. So what in particular should we be worrying about, and what, if anything, should we be doing to rectify the situation?
I have written a while back about the ‘feminisation’ of science teaching as a possible strategy to increase the numbers of girls in science. I was sceptical then and I remain so now. I believe we should be trying to make our science teaching accessible to all, not pandering to an old-fashioned view of what is suitable. And we should be doing all we can, collectively, to eradicate those 1950’s stereotypes of girls being good with animals and boys liking to play with hi-tech equipment including guns which, I believe, fuel the divergent numbers of boys and girls choosing biology and physics A levels. Societal expectations will feed into choices as long as parents, peers and teachers give subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues about acceptability of different choices and expectations about what is and isn’t the norm for each gender.
What needs to be done in society at large may be relatively obvious but unlikely to be achievable fast; parents are best placed to tailor informal learning appropriate to their child’s interests but their best endeavours will be misplaced if they listen to the sort of ill-informed mantras typified by the Keller Guardian article. Where we can do more is in our schools, where teachers should be trained to teach and control a classroom in a gender neutral way. Do they do it? Unfortunately I suspect collectively they do not. The IOP’s 2006 study of Girls in the physics classroom highlighted some of the problems they saw. Their more recent study about the progression of girls from different types of schools into A level physics, highlighted the massive discrepancy in numbers between girls from single sex and coeducational maintained schools opting to stick with physics, the former leading to 3.5 times as many girls progressing to A level physics as the latter. This must be telling us something about a school’s ethos as much about the girls’ preferences (although it is hard to correct for social class effects in the cohorts at single sex versus mixed schools). So, we need more work to be done to find out what works in practice at the school level, to prevent girls being deterred from progressing in physics.
This week I attended a meeting of a group known, rather cumbersomely, as the Joint STEM BiS/DfE Ministerial Group, which regularly brings together representatives from the two ministries (civil servants and, on a good day, both relevant ministers; currently these are Elizabeth Truss and David Willetts) with those of us involved in different ways with STEM school education ie from the professional and learned societies, the funders and other relevant bodies. I am sure Chatham House rules apply to this meeting, so I need to be careful about what I say, but diversity formed a significant part of our discussions. I was delighted to see that both ministers clearly cared personally about this issue, both about gender and the other diversity strands including social mobility. The role of OFSTED inspections in improving awareness of gender issues in teaching was raised – as it had been in the latest IOP report – and it is to be hoped that the current position will be strengthened in this respect; DfE certainly appeared to be in listening mode. Furthermore, it is to be hoped that additional research on the effect of single sex teaching will be carried out to identify what makes the difference, something I have been urging for a while. Not that I am advocating single sex schools, but they are obviously doing something ‘right’. Evidence is needed, not at the whole school level (about which there have been studies) but on the consequences of single sex classes for specific STEM subjects.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget some of the other statistics about the gender gap. We should also recognize that the relatively low numbers of boys progressing in biology, psychology and (at university) veterinary science and subjects allied to medicine, may also be a source of worry, as was pointed out by one of the representatives from the biomedical arena at the ministerial meeting. If girls don’t want to do physics and boys don’t want to be vets, fine. If, on the other hand, culturally and through our patterns of teaching, they are being deterred despite their unacknowledged personal wishes, it’s very much not fine. But uttering platitudes that ‘math is meant to be hard’ and that we should all encourage girls to learn science through reading recipes – no, that doesn’t cut it and such articles should be consigned to the waste paper basket, fast.