Let’s Get Stereotypes out of Science Education

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.


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21 Responses to Let’s Get Stereotypes out of Science Education

  1. Good article Athene. I am curious about one thing though – why is it relevant that Emma Gilbey Keller is an ‘American’ author? just curious as no one else’s nationality is clarified that you mention. Did I miss the relevance?

    • also the Emma Keller is not American – she was born in England (her bio says) she just lives in the US

      • The reason I mentioned I thought she was American (and I stand corrected) is because the article appeared in the US News blog, not the main bit of the Guardian or their science (or education) blogs. It isn’t that I thought the country of origin makes a difference to stereotypes – though of course it may matter when it comes to how teaching is carried out.

        • Hi Athene – thanks – I did miss the relevance then. I think the country of origin does make a difference to stereotypes though – so I thought that is what you might be getting at….. there are different ‘tropes’ for girls and science in the US than I think there are here – but of course, again I could be wrong about that

  2. Jennifer Dougan says:

    Thanks for this post, Athene. I was appalled by the article and think you’ve done a good job here of explaining why so many of us (both male and female scientists and educators) felt frustrated by it. It’s certainly a complex issue with many societal triggers at play and I think you’re right that we should be focusing on schools and education to do what we can there. I wonder whether you think that gender-balance in science at the upper levels would also have an affect on uptake? That is, the more gender-irrelevant science becomes, the more this may trickle down and out into society as more women stay in science, teach science, promote science and are regarded as scientific experts.

    Secondly, I do think there are some socio-economic factors at play and I know that the RS are looking into this in their new Diversity consultation. It will be interesting to reflect on this.

    • Jennifer
      I’m sure that, with more women role models and with a more gender-neutral science workforce, there would be a spill down into societal expectations, but it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. The media representation of scientists will also play a crucila role, as I’ve talked about often before here on my blog, because – again – parents and children will unconsciously absorb the idea that a scientist is like the scientists they see on the screen (and here I mean in dramas and soaps as much as actual science programmes). The questions about diversity at the Ministerial meeting arose because the RS were doing a brief report on their diversity work. Socio-economic factors are hugely important and the data on them is still being gathered.

      • Jennifer Dougan says:

        Thanks for your thoughts. I agree – both top-down (trickle) and bottom-up (grass roots) approaches are required at this point. The reason for the question is that in my discipline (chemistry) there is a 50:50 gender ratio at the A-level/Ugrad stage. It’s further along the pipe that we run into serious problems. Clearly, we need multi-stage strategies and an understanding across the career life-cycle (and I know you are involved in discussions across these various levels). For instance, we want to ensure that if we get the girls INTO physics at A-level/university that the roles and opportunities are there for them to flourish at the other end. That said, I do think we are moving in the right direction with a number of initiatives at the later stages.

        I also agree that the wider societal relationship with science is important. Media representation and student contact time with active scientists (of both genders) undoubtedly have an important role to play.

        I have been very much looking forward to seeing the RS output on socio-economics since I learned they were looking at it.

  3. Another wonderful post – sexism in science is an area very close to my heart. I don’t suppose you knew the reference for a study I remember hearing about in which girls performed significantly worse than boys at school in a maths/science test if they were required to write their gender on the front of the paper? I can’t find it anywhere and shockingly some of my science friends don’t believe that sex is an issue in science.

  4. Jeremy Mallin says:

    Great post on an important topic. Thanks for this. Sad no other men commented.

    Ideas: Regarding media/Hollywood portrayals – could more scientists/advocates find writers/directors/producers to team with to counter negative and nonhelpful stereotypes?

    Is there a way to influence shows that stereotype scientists? One of my favorite shows is The Big Bang Theory sitcom, but I also recognize that it presents awful stereotypes of scientists (both genders).

    There are selected STEM fields where women outnumber and outperform men. In America, various IT fields are heavily populated by women. Is there anything intrinsically different about STEM fields where women do well? Do we just treat those fields differently and if so, how? IT was just one example, but clearly there are various academic sciences that attract and retain more women than other fields too. Why is that? Are there transferable lessons to be learned?

    Just some of the thoughts that immediately came to mind. Thanks again. Found you in a Twitter search. Glad for it.

  5. “Sad no other men commented.”

    If that’s not an incentive to say something. I am looking at the role of parents in education and clearly within that stereotypes comes up as a regular issue, especially when discussing different cultural views on the values of certain professions.

    For example, it is clear that certain families/communities place a high value on their children becoming doctors, whether or not they would be suitable material for medical training. This means the children are pushed to study the STEM subjects, especially chemistry, to permit access to the selection process. They may however fail to get through this process, which is a high probability based on sheer numbers applying, limited places available and perceived rigorous entry requirements. Even if they get in they may fail the course. So what happens to the rejected? No-one really knows as they are considered to be the price you pay for guaranteeing an expertly trained medical profession.

    But schools are trying to provide the right support and advice to avoid the wasteful consequences of this process – this includes educating children in the softer skills to better prepare them for the route to medicine, as well as re-educating their parents to consider that their children might be more suited to other types of employment – so by all means let your daughter study a STEM subject, but make it physics because she has an interest in it and the right mathematical/technical capabilities to take the subject further either as a physicist or as an engineer. But don’t forget that there are other subjects out there your daughter may aspire to which could give her even better personal and financial rewards. Make sure her school is allowing her to discuss the world of work at an early enough age so that she can explore the options fully before she has to make her GCSE choices.

    But don’t do this in a way that trivialises everything.

  6. Grant says:


    Thought I’d just let you know that your Observer piece,* Scientific genius not a solo effort, has made it’s way around the world to appear in the Opinion pages of my local newspaper the Otago Daily Times yesterday.

    * Confusingly it credits the Observer in introducing the piece but credits the Guardian News & Media at the end.

  7. Pam says:

    Thank you for this. I’m commenting as a mum who’s also an academic but not in STEM.

    I found it interesting the comment about single sex schools getting it right. I was educated in an all girls school in the 80s and it was actually great. It was liberating being allowed to be feminine (and being allowed to choose home economics or design/tech) but also given the opportunities to do both the hard sciences as well as the humanities. So in our o levels, I had friends who did history, geography and English as well as friends who did physics, chemistry and biology. I did a mix of two each, and so did geography and English, physics and chemistry, and both math. I went on to do math at a level and ended up majoring in psychology.

    However amongst my friends from secondary school, there were plenty of doctors/consultants, lawyers, accountants, computer engineers and everything in between.

    I guess my point is, my stint in an all girls school was positive. I don’t get the negativity about that in the uk but what do I know.. I’m not from here! If I have my way, my children (currently 5 and 2, boy and girl) will be attending single sex schools, because my experience (and my brother’s experience in an all boys school) allowed me to do science and math, and do well in them because I wanted to do so.

    As an academic, I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes when I confront my students with stats and numbers and the girls (more often than not) start panicking and saying ‘but Pam… I don’t get numbers!’

  8. Jason Gabriel says:

    When your goal is to help educate other people you have to look at compliance as well as how effective it is.

    Choices are being made every day and what is popular with boys and girls seems to be more divergent after puberty . Girls are making choices you don’t like and your medicine is more dictatorship. More intellect , less sexuality.

    As im typing this ive glanced at the TV and eva longoria is dancing on a table in a negligée to advertise cat food?

    Im guessing cat food isn’t sold to women on an intellectual basis either.

  9. Single sex education does seem to significantly influence women’s behavior. See for example this study where random assignment to single sex classes in university led to a change in women’s willingness to take risks: http://ideas.repec.org/p/iza/izadps/dp6133.html. Because the students were randomly assigned, this gets around the issue mentioned by Athene that girls in single sex schools may have different characteristics.

  10. PP says:

    Please … stop projecting every difficulty in life on men.

    … and start taking responsibility of yourself. Men and boys also have their vices, fears, prejudices and oppressions to deal with – always have. The difference is that they do not point to women for it.

    … that may change if this unfettered arrogance of instrumentalisation, projection and often fabrication by females – also called feminism – continues. It seems to be mainly born out of envy and complacency. I once thought women had some points with that and indeed they had. No more. It starts to smell.

    Men are starting to be tired of it and it also victimizes boys.

  11. I think PP should perhaps read this – Confessions of a forme misogynist – and work out where their anger comes from. In point of fact I never blamed ‘men’ for what is happening in our education system! The original article that sparked all the fury was written by a woman.

  12. pp says:

    A stereotypical men bashing ideology snotty answer once a little criticized on actually self-serving contemptuous attitudes towards men.

    This has become nowadays so pervasive in western societies that it starts to make me angry yes. Boys nowadays almost have to be sorry for being a man. And when they dare to or when men dare to … then they are shovelled projections down their throat like the above cited link.

    I bet many men know exactly these behaviors from some women they have come in contact with. Women are always victims, men are always culrptis … it must be that way … otherwise females come to the true need to take self-responsibility.

    History is full of such BS, like the witch hunt in the middle ages. There’s no difference today. This is ugly but human stuff and now it looks like its womens turn on this … maybe looks like they even can top men … transporting something like a (gender)racism with all thge ugly sublte usual motivations behind this.

    Another scientist expressed it like this: http://www.science20.com/comments/135563/Re_Gender_Bias_HEP

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