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Jul 23 2011

Should we make science girl friendly?

A recent study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology found that using stereotypically feminine examples gets girls more interest in science:

After examining a wide array of science textbooks, University of Luxembourg educational researcherSylvie Kerger concluded that most present real-world examples are “embedded in masculine contexts.” But wrapping scientific subjects — at least initially — around female-friendly topics could kindle interest in scientific fields under-populated by women, Kerger says. Studies have shown that interest counts more than ability toward choosing a major or a career.

[...]Kerger gave 294 eighth- and ninth-grade boys and girls questionnaires asking them whether they would like to study biology, physics, information technology or statistics the following year. Instead of naming these subjects, the questionnaire presented each science through topics found in previous studies to be either male- or female-friendly. “How does a laser read a CD?” was a masculine way to ask about physics, while “how is a laser used in cosmetic surgery?” addressed stereotypical girls’ concerns.

The youngsters rated their interest on a scale from one (not interesting at all) to five (very interesting). Presenting these sciences in a feminine way increased girls’ interest in physics about a half-point, in information technology more than 0.75 of a point and in statistics more than a full point.

But the male-versus-female presentations didn’t affect girls’ interest in biology. (“Watch blood coagulate from a small wound,” appealed to them as much as “reflect on how skin tanning comes about in the summer.”)

“Girls are already very interested” in that science, even when presented in a male-friendly way, says Kerger.

Increasing the girl-friendly content had a predictable effect on boys’ interest. When researchers couched information technology as learning “how to order clothes over the Internet” rather than figuring out “how the inside of the computer is structured,” boys’ interest dampened in that science.

Faced with this zero-sum result, Kerger and her colleagues don’t argue for single-sex classes. This is a cross section, so while some girls aren’t interested in stereotypically feminine topics, they point out, some boys are. The reverse also holds true. So they recommend teachers offer a choice among several modules dealing with the same scientific concepts wrapped around various male- and female-friendly topics.

tl;dr making stereotypically girly science examples increased interest from girls, but decreased interest in boys

I have a couple of concerns before we automatically insert hyperfeminine examples into science textbooks. For one thing, how did they determine that some of these standard examples are “masculine?” What’s masculine about reading CDs or blot clotting? Am I just one of those outliers for finding these things way more interesting?

It seems the real problem is that boys and girls are told from an early age what they’re allowed to be interested in because of their gender. That’s what we should be fighting. We need to destroy the notion that girls can only like science if it’s about makeup and that boys can only like science if it’s about blowing things up. Pandering to these stereotypes only perpetuates the problem.

But on the flip side, that doesn’t mean we have to avoid feminine examples in text books. We shouldn’t leave out the science of skin tanning because it seems too girly – it’s still a relevant and interesting biological question. There’s nothing inherently wrong with femininity, so it shouldn’t be excluded.

I can understand the practical desire to get more girls interested in science, but overall this just rubs me the wrong way. Instead of trying to get them with girly things when they’re almost in high school, why not cultivate a gender neutral interest when they’re even younger? If we fight stereotypes when they’re little, it helps both science and equality.

This is post 13 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    Geneviève

    Great post, thanks! I wonder when will some people realize that not all girl like pink, princess-like stuff… (and vice-versa)

  2. 2
    poshrainbib

    Laser reading CD/Laser exploding hair follicles: fair trade-off.  How a computer is built/How to order clothes on the internet? NOT THE SAME, MORONS! I’m sorry, but shopping is not science.  Well, social science maybe.  And social science is interesting, don’t get me wrong.  But seriously – I agree that the problem is how girls get these preposterous ideas about what they should or should not be interested in, not pandering to those stereotypes in order to get them interested.

  3. 3
    WhiteJM

    This post reminded me of this: http://www.smbc-comics.com/ind

  4. 4
    Vanessa

    100% agree with your last paragraph.  Science should be interesting in one way or another regardless of your gender.

  5. 5
    udo

    And how is “how to order clothes over the Internet” in any way scientific? The ‘masculine’ example “how the inside of the computer is structured” is obviously a topic of (applied) computer science, but ordering clothes over the Internet?

  6. 6
    hippiefemme

    I agree that the major issue here is that they’re reinforcing gender stereotypes rather than trying to fight them. Also, I agree with @16f1742f95fd55b185e2465cf40c335f:disqus :  how a computer is built is definitely not the same as how to order clothes online. I love ordering clothes online, but I’ll also be adding RAM to all the computer lab terminals as part of my graduate assistantship position in about a month. Those are two very, very different concepts that require different skill sets.

  7. 7
    Sarah Maddox

    Agreed. The practicality of adding more “oh, look at the pretty shiny girly thing” examples is only superficially tempting. The real problem is deeper – the fact that kids are so vulnerable to manipulation via gender stereotypes. The most effective work will be “cultivating gender neutral interest when they’re even younger”. That definitely worked for me.Also, I think the emphasis on book and problem examples is misplaced. This sounds bad, but many young kids don’t read their textbooks. Their interest is hugely influenced by favorite teachers, which happen to teach the subject they grow into. I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to even consider biology as a major/career if I hadn’t had a female advanced biology teacher in high school. Before her amazing presence in my life, I’d always (subconsciously) thought of science as a guy subject that I wasn’t good enough for.  All my science teachers up to that point had been men, only one of which I didn’t find intimidating. Role models have always been more important to me (and I assume a lot of people) than written content and presentations. So maybe part of the solution is to encourage  women in science to consider teaching and mentoring.

  8. 8
    Mike Brownstein

    Believe it or not I’m going to bring hockey into this one. Similar to science hockey has a similar image problem of being white and elitist. So every year in February, the NHL and USA Hockey have programs where they exhibit the game and make it accessible to all people of all backgrounds who don’t usually have an opportunity. Maybe if the science community can do more of this that it could help. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…I only post this as an example of an outreach that is somewhat successful…

  9. 9
    SuperHappyJen

    You’re right the “masculine” examples are far more interesting.

  10. 10
    20tauri

    I agree to a certain extent, but…good luck with that. I think it’ll be way easier to throw more stereotype examples into learning materials than to expect gender stereotypes to just go away. It’s embedded even before birth, with pinks and blues at the hospital and in greeting cards. Though it’s getting better a little, at the end of the day I still see it as a losing battle. Especially when companies make money off of marketing certain products to girls and others to boys. That way parents have to buy two things instead of one that their son and daughter can share. That goes for science items as much as anything else.

  11. 11
    AmandaStock

    Great post! In my opinion, one of the best ways to get young girls interested in science and technology is not through the use of stereotypically “feminine” examples, but through hands-on, woman-positive mentorship such as the E.X.C.I.T.E. (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) program run by IBM. My mother is a manager at IBM and a mentor in the program. She praises it for getting girls interested without the pink-washing (the camp t-shirts are green!) pointed out by @WhiteJM:disqus  with that SMBC comic, which is so commonly seen as an easy solution. I definitely had my early interest in science fostered by similar programs (comp-sci and engineering summer camps run by University of Toronto and Seneca College). http://www-07.ibm.com/ibm/hk/c

  12. 12
    Mike Brownstein

    Well actually women’s hockey is growing enormously here.

  13. 13
    Ethan Walker

    I was very disappointed by this post, because when I saw the title in my rss feed I interpreted it as “should we make science-girl friendly?” instead of “should we make science girl-friendly?”.  I mean, I suppose it was informative and all but in the seconds between when I saw that title and when this page actually loaded, I was really looking forward to the prospect of some sort of surely and sarcastic science girl.

  14. 14
    Cay Borduin

    Isn’t there some research out there about how girls’ and boys’ interests  differ due to cultural influences and how much by intrinsic (genetic, physiological, hormonal) things?  I am interested in a lot of stereotypical male topics too, but some of them bore the heck out of me, frankly.  When Bob starts talking about astrophysics on the Skeptics Guide, for example, I want to fast forward.

  15. 15
    Kay Abshire

    Personally, I’m more interested in blowing things up. But I might be an outlier like you, who knows.I agree completely though that certain things that utilize science shouldn’t be discounted because of being “stereotypically hyperfeminine,” such as make-up (the science of pigments is actually really interesting).

  16. 16
    Brad Seiler

    The last example from your block quote really scares me. “How to order clothes on the internet” vs “How the inside of the computer is structured”. The former isn’t information technology at all. Maybe “How to sell clothes on the internet” would lead you into a discussion of how the internet works, or how to build websites and online applications, but “how to order clothes on the internet” has about as much to do with information technology as “how to bludgeon your enemies in an online game”, perhaps a more male-friendly version.Without reading the whole study, I suspect that it is fairly flawed if this is the kind of choice it was providing.

  17. 17
    Classical Cipher

    I’m really sad that the “stereotypically girly” stuff is all “how to make yourself pretty.” I mean, if we’re going to be ridiculous and feed into gender stereotypes, couldn’t they at least be marginally less disgusting and toxic stereotypes? “Science of falling in love,” maybe, or “science of cute little kitties and puppies?”

  18. 18
    Azkyroth

    Deja vu.

  19. 19
    Azkyroth

    There may be, eventually, once we reach a critical mass of people who don’t have to be dragged kicking and screaming away from the assumption it’s ALL intrinsic.

  20. 20
    Xanthe Wyse

    when I went to the university open day while at school, I was thinking of doing accounting (I had a cool teacher).  I went along and thought ‘boring.’  I went to some science sessions and they were blowing things up.  Much more interesting.  So I studied science.  All that cosmetic surgery, makeup emphasis is social conditioning.  There are plenty of girls interested in science these days – they don’t need to make it all gender-role sensitive.  Do you notice with those CSI programs they try to make science sexy?  It’s really funny how their main tool is a flashlight.  All the women are glamorous with high-heels.

  21. 21
    breadbox

    There’s plenty of research. Guess what; all of it contradicts each other. Doing reliable research on subjects like these is hard.

  22. 22
    breadbox

    I’m going to argue that, yeah, it’s a little unrealistic to say that we should solve gender stereotyping first, and then we can start worrying about giving boys and girls equal encouragement to pursue the sciences. Pick your battles.And in any case, there’s no reason not to include both the CDs and the cosmetic surgery examples in the classroom. Maybe some boys and some girls will only find one or the other interesting, but the point is to avoid always appeal to only one side of the room.

  23. 23
    Alantas

    I wonder why the neutral things (like how CDs work) are considered the “masculine” things rather than merely the “not-specifically-feminine” things.And I think the point being made was that the stereotyped things can be the “gateway drug” into getting girls interested in tech (come for the pretty pink unicorns, stay for the ability to fix your own computer problems), or perhaps they might interpret it as being given “permission” to take up the keyboard when they might’ve (otherwise) assumed they’d be unwelcome. (This could be true even if they’re not actually interested in the “girly” things: it’d just be a sign that girls are welcome.)That’d be the short-term, immediate fix, while the underlying problems of gender stereotyping are addressed in the long term.

  24. 24
    Mark D.

    “Ordering clothes”, in the context of information science, likely has to do with encryption and ways of keeping the transaction secure.Which is still very, very different from the internal architecture of a computer. They aren’t even in the same league. In college right now, and my teacher for Analog II, Digital I, and Microprocessors is a woman (same woman all three classes). Bit scatter-brained with a moderately heavy Indian accent, but she knows what she’s talking about most of the time.

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