Opening doors for girls in science

Ella Rhodes reports.

A new report released by the Institute of Physics, supported by the Government Equalities Office, offers guidance to schools that want to improve the accessibility of heavily gendered subjects for all students. The report was presented at a launch event in London, supported by the British Psychological Society, and it suggested schools avoid sexist ‘banter’ and create an environment that promotes equality.

Professor Peter Main, from the Institute of Physics, said the number of girls taking an A-level in the subject had remained steadily low between 1985 and 2012 and despite many initiatives over that time to encourage more girls to take it. Further work from the Institute also found half of state-funded co-ed schools sent no girls to do a physics A-level.

However physics is not the only gender-biased subject, computer science is the worst for under-subscription of girls, while subjects such as psychology and performing arts are skewed in the other direction. Main explained that an earlier report from the Institute, Closing Doors, looked at six gendered subjects – physics, biology, maths, economics, psychology and English – and assessed schools on whether their students’ progression was challenging gender stereotypes or following the same pattern. They found 81 per cent of schools were essentially not changing well-known gender stereotypes.

They found the schools that were best at challenging stereotypical subject choices were good at challenging stereotypes in all six subjects, not just one, which suggested that a holistic approach to changes in school culture was needed. The Opening Doors report, Main explained, was written following extensive school visits to 10 secondary schools located both on the south coast and in the south west of England.

Among the recommendations to emerge from this work were the suggestion someone in the school’s senior leadership should act as a champion for gender equality; the school environment should encourage equality – for example, Main said, many schools have aspirational quotes on their walls, but these are by and large from men; and that teachers should treat sexist language in the same way they treat racist or homophobic language. In the future, Main said, the Institute would like to hold an annual Opening Doors conference and potentially start an Athena Swan-type project in schools – to encourage girls who take up physics.  

After a fascinating talk on the sociological perspective on gender and science participation by Professor Louise Archer (King’s College London), Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes (University of Birmingham) spoke about the neuroscience of gender differences and whether these have implications for education. She pointed to potential causes of gender differences in the brain including sex hormones which a fetus is exposed to in utero as well as during puberty, chromosome differences and environmental influences. Burnett Heyes said research has found essential differences between male and female brains, including size: males have bigger brains while women have a larger corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres of the brain; the amygdala is bigger in men while the hippocampus is bigger, on average, in women. However, she pointed out, these differences may simply point to different brains that are ‘designed’ differently to do the same job.

Burnett Heyes concluded that while evidence for gender differences in brains was compelling, male and female brains are essentially more alike than they are different, and that it was important to look not only at differences in brains between genders but also at individual differences within genders as well.

Psychologist Dr Gijsbert Stoet (University of Glasgow) then examined different theories for gender differences in education. He opened by pointing out the different approaches to gender in psychology – the evolutionary view suggests inherent differences exist between genders thanks to previous evolutionary pressures to survive, while social structural theories propose a person’s environment has more bearing on a person’s psychological traits than evolution. He pointed out that while gender disparities often focus on girls and science there was a huge gap in literacy among boys. While girls often thrive with languages boys from all countries lag behind. One study even found that boys with the best-educated mothers still had poorer verbal abilities than girls with the lowest-educated mothers. There is also a gap in female spatial abilities, and both this and language problems in boys, Stoet said, affect school performance. He also pointed out that, while girls’ stereotypical poorer performance in maths is often spoken about, the gender gap here is still three times less than gaps in language abilities between boys and girls. He also pointed out that gender differences may in part arise from a gender difference in interests. He said men were more interested in jobs to do with things and objects, while women are drawn to careers where they can work with people – this pattern of difference is stable over time even as countries become more developed and opportunities in different careers open up to all genders. However, Stoet did point out that interests are not the only factor when choosing a career.

Stoet concluded that there is a clear gender difference in abilities and attitudes, and biological factors and social influences both play a role. He said too little work had been done on the gap between boys and girls in reading and language abilities, and suggested there should be a rethink of when children are made to make subject choices at schools: could 13 or 14 be too young to make mature choices?

To read the Institute of Physics Opening Doors report see tinyurl.com/oohqzry

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