Home » Issues Essay: Why Don’t Girls Choose Science

Issues Essay: Why Don’t Girls Choose Science

In South Australia in 1983 less than one-third of students studying physics at matriculation level were girls (Robottom, 1986). Sixteen years later, in 1999, girls still only made up 35% of students studying physics at the matriculation level (SSABSA, 1999). Despite all the advances for women in modern society it seems that there is still an issue of concern in that of girls participation and achievement in science.

Adamson, Foster, Roark & Reed (1998) suggests that the gender gap in science appears to widen with development so much so that there is concern that women are being underrepresented in some science fields. It is suggested that due to the role science and technology plays in all of our lives today it is not only a concern that women are limiting their career options, but also that they are not getting the opportunity to take part in the planning and decision-making processes that occur in areas which affect all citizens (Johnston, 1984).

Indeed, Andre, Whigham, Hendrickson & Chambers (1999), have found that secondary school girls have lower persistence and enrolment in the physical science pipeline, which of course leads to women having lower participation in physical science careers. Recently O’Brien, Martinez-Pons & Kopala (1999) reported that gender could directly predict students’ career interests in the science and engineering fields, leaving no question as to whether gender was an issue when choosing science subject.

It is thought that the critical moment for girls arises when they have a choice as to whether to do science or not (Robottom, 1986) and it is at this point the gender differences really become noticeable. Studies have revealed that girls were choosing to do language, arts or biology, whereas boys were choosing to do physical science courses (Farenga & Joyce, 1999) and it seems that there is no biological basis that can account for this low achievement and representation of girls in physical science (Johnston, 1984).

This viewed in the light of the fact that it has been shown that the school plays a major role in the performance and attitudes of girls to science (Johnston, 1984) must prompt all teachers to examine what they may be doing to contribute to this problem and what they may be able to do to encourage girls to become involved in science, particularly the physical sciences. But before one can begin to make positive changes in this direction it must be understood what is causing this gender gap in science.

Over the years there have been many studies carried out to try and explain the reasons why girls are not choosing to do science, and they have come up with a plethora of possible reasons and some very interesting ideas. Some of these explanations may not be able to be altered by the school and the teacher but many of them can be. This paper will give a brief overview of the former and then explore the later in a little more detail.

One of the most fascinating studies on this issue was one carried out by Andre, Whigham, Hendrickson & Chambers (1999) it was done on elementary children and their parents and explored the perceptions and attitudes toward science of both the students and the parents. This study found that the parents perceived that boys were more competent in science than girls and that it was more important for boys. Parents expected boys to have higher performance in science and saw jobs related to math and science as more male dominated.

This finding is important as the parents’ perception of the importance of science may directly affect the amount of encouragement and the number of opportunities in science-like activities parents provide (Andre et al. , 1999) Obviously there is little teachers or schools can do about the perception of parents towards science, besides trying to promote a positive image of girls in science. However there are many other suggestions as to why girls don’t choose to do science that provides opportunity to teachers to alter the trend.

It is often suggested that the gender gap in science may be present right from when children first start school and that the structure of the curriculum in these science subjects only facilitates the widening of this gap (Farenga & Joyce, 1999). Studies have shown that boys and girls come to school with very different science-related skills and experiences and that their socialization fosters interest in different science activities (Adamson et al. 998 and Farenga & Joyce, 1999). Boys tend to be drawn to science activities that involve the manipulation of objects (Farenga & Joyce, 1999) whereas girls are more socially aware than boys and place a greater importance on interpersonal relationships than on inanimate objects (Stewart, 1991). What this means is that girls approach practical work within the science lab with a lot less confidence and often underdeveloped manipulative skills (Johnston, 1984).

This illustrates the problem, that the science curriculum and some teachers assume that all students come to class with some technical or mechanical experience and while not all boys will have the case is that most girls won’t have that experience and thus are unfairly disadvantaged (Payget, 1987). Adamson, Foster, Roark & Reed (1998) have also suggested that the way young children segregate their peer group based on gender may also contribute to the gender gap by maintaining the stereotypical masculine image of physical science.

Whilst this may be hard to imagine in young children, it has been found that children associate their appropriate gender role by age 3 and by ages 6 or 7 they can identify gender-role definition (Farenga & Joyce, 1999), this combined with the findings of Andre, Whigham, Hendrickson & Chambers (1999) that children in elementary school rate jobs relating to science as more male dominated may shed more light on the issue. This phenomenon only increases, as the children get older.

Brooks (1995) suggests that a strong influence on girls as they get older is girl-to-girl harassment that is thought to be related to gender identity. Indeed Robottom (1986) suggests that girls’ orientation to science is shaped by culturally determined images of what is and is not appropriate female behaviour and Johnston (1984) also alludes to this, suggesting that adolescence is a particularly important time when girls are wishing to be recognised as being feminine and they feel pressured by their peers to conform.

This combined with the masculine image of many science subjects may deter girls from studying them. The behaviour of boys has also been linked to girls veering away from science. It has been suggested that the behaviour of men and boys has had a negative impact on girls’ participation in education in general and science specifically (Brooks, 1995). Brooks (1995) states that this occurs not only because boys harass girls in the classroom and in the schoolyard but also because they block access to curriculum areas and take up places in classes.

Brooks also draws attention to the fact that girls receive a lot less attention from the teacher than boys do. This is supported by many authors, Payget, (1987) suggested that boys get 80% of the teacher’s attention, however this figure would certainly vary depending on the teacher. Stewart (1991) also found that teachers consistently interact more with boys than girls, and whilst some have tried to explain this away in that boys are more disruptive and for that reason they receive more attention, even with this factor removed the boys still receive more attention.

This may lead to girls becoming disinterested and to lose faith in the competence in science. This lack of attention demonstrates a need to look at teachers’ perceptions of girls in science. It has been shown that science teachers think that science subjects are less important for girls than for boys and that they rate identical work more highly for boys than for girls (Stewart, 1991).

This reflects that science teachers have different expectations for boys than they do for girls, this may be reflected in their teaching techniques and may affect girls’ self-perception in science and lead to lowered achievement and participation (Stewart, 1991). The masculine image of science is also attributed to lower achievement and participation in science. Silins & Zarins (1987) suggested that it was not surprising that science was viewed as male dominant while students use textbooks that represent scientists as male and have text that is male-oriented.

It has been suggested that this masculine image that science appears to have may be a key contributor to the gender gap in science. It is suggested that boys and girls have different ways of learning and that science tends to cater for the way that boys learn. Stark (1999) found that boys showed superior performance levels in tasks which focussed on knowledge and understanding, the type found in the physical sciences, whereas girls performed better on tasks where the content or context was drawn from the biological sciences and on written tasks assessing science skills.

It seems that girls are attracted to topics where the content has an aesthetic element and it set in an everyday context and they can see it’s social relevance (Johnston, 1984 and Stark, 1999). However, in the physical sciences teachers are too caught up with the teaching the concepts and processes, that they do not stress the relevance to everyday life that these concepts have and thus may lose the interest of girls (Stewart, 1991).

While all of the above certainly seem to have a hand in generating the gender gap there is another possible reason that has become a great issue of concern and it is that of girls self-confidence and/or self –efficacy in science. Self-efficacy is defined by O’Brien, Martinez-Pons & Kopala (1999) as ‘an individuals belief of how well he or she can successfully enact behaviour required to accomplish some task’. Self-confidence is a trait usually reported as being lower in females than males (Andre et al. 999) and O’Brien, Martinez-Pons & Kopala (1999) have found that a deficit in self-efficacy in mathematics is a key contributor to their lowered career interest in science and engineering, and they suggest that in order to overcome this it may be necessary to rethink the way that mathematics is taught. Stewart (1991) also discussed girls’ confidence in relation to science. Girls appear to show a greater degree of learned helplessness when it comes to mathematics and science and Stewart (1991) suggests that this is in direct response to the teacher’s behaviour.

It was found that although girls appeared to receive a lot less criticism from teachers, when they did receive criticism it was in most cases directed at the intellectual aspects of their work, whereas with boys it was mostly directed at neatness or instruction-following. It was also found that there was a tendency for boys to be praised for the intellectual aspects of their work more frequently than girls. Thus it is not surprising that girls tend to attribute success in science to good luck and failure to lack of effort.

Stewart, 1991) It is perhaps for this reason that girls tend to be more influenced than boys by the perceived difficulty of subjects (Johnston, 1984). Silins and Zarins (1987) found that girls perceived science as being one of the hardest subjects to learn and Johnston (1984) found that whilst boys also perceived science as being hard, they were less likely to let this affect their subject choices. When considering all these influences, it is not surprising that girls continue to be underrepresented in the physical sciences.

But the question is, what can schools and educators do to try and turn this trend around and get girls into science? Stewart (1991) suggests that to overcome the learned helplessness in girls teachers should change the type of feedback that they give to girls so that it focuses on insufficient effort rather than on lack of ability. It is also important that teachers be aware of the differences between boys and girls in interest, experience and attitudes and employ constructivist strategies to make the most of those differences (Johnston, 1984 and Farenga & Joyce, 1999).

Robottom (1986) suggests that treating boys and girls equally within the science classroom may only serve to exacerbate the problem and that rather the solution to the problem may actually be to treat boys and girls differently. Roach (1992) published a paper discussing the success of Marion High School in promoting physics to girls and suggested that making the subject more language rich, communicative and conceptual, rather than mathematical has made it more appealing to girls.

Johnston (1984) included in her paper a list of over twenty suggestion of how science teachers could make science subjects more appealing to girls (see Appendix). The idea is that the diverse experiences of girls be recognised and valued in the curriculum. However this author wonders whether by making science more appealing to girls we may also make it less appealing to boys. At any rate it is important for teachers to examine their own feelings regarding gender and science and be aware of any biases they may have.

In the future science is only going to become increasingly important in our daily lives and if girls continue to be underrepresented in the science field then they may be severely disadvantaged. Suggestions for encouraging girls to do science: Use an integrated approach with lots of practical applications and activities. Approach physical science topics in a variety of ways, particularly via biology. Emphasize the social implications of science. Encourage aesthetic appreciation and humanitarian aspects of science.

Present an image of science that is person-related rather than thing related. Introduce more choice in topics which students study. Encourage girls to fully participate in practical work. Ensure that seating arrangements for boys and girls are arranged equitably. Avoid any differences in teacher expectations regarding girls. Prevent girls being ridiculed in any way for their lack of experience in practical science-related activities. Ensure girls have equal access to equipment and teacher assistance.

Consciously encourage the efforts and contributions of girls in science class. Discuss the different teaching approaches that can be used with the class. Stress the role that women have played in the history of science. Invite female guest speakers to class from science-related and non-traditional careers. Incorporate investigations of science careers in the curriculum and encourage girls to broaden their options. Examine the content, context of examples and presentation of textbooks for any sex bias. Use a variety of modes of assessment.

Organise remedial, compensatory or enrichment activities for girls. Have a “recruiting” drive in the junior school to encourage girls to continue with science. Arrange a parent evening to discuss the importance of encouraging girls in science and non-traditional careers. Set up a support group for girls where they can discuss their anxieties about science and where they can be assisted with study skills Rearrange the school timetable so that the traditional male subjects are not set against those associated with girls.

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