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Four Tips to Close the Gender Gap in Science Education

From an early age, girls perceive that science is for men. The good news is that the future for women in science is slowly improving.

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Four Tips to Close the Gender Gap in Science Education

Wearing a pair of mittens over a pair of gloves, I struggled to adjust my telescope to find a tiny blotch of a nebula between two tiny points of light among the thousands of stars in the night sky. The biting cold of a New England winter did not convince my lab instructor that we should stay inside. I was only taking Introduction to Astronomy to get my lab requirement out of the way. Why was I standing outside in this frigid air? I was a humanities person, an art person. I was NOT a science person.

The Orion Nebula as it appeared to me in my Introduction to Astronomy lab.

That was 10 years ago. Now I am interning at NOVA, in graduate school for science and technology in education, with five years at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics under my belt. What happened?

I spent hours that semester struggling with difficult-to-imagine concepts. How could space be so big? How could the light we see be so old? Why was I spending so much time on my homework when really, in the span of the universe, my homework was so insignificant? I enjoyed everything I learned, but solving problem sets wasn’t easy for me. I had to go to office hours for math help. It didn’t come naturally or quickly, the way learning languages or art theory did. I ended the semester thinking maybe I would take another astronomy class. Maybe. If it fit into my schedule. But I wasn’t really good at science, so why should I bother?

At the end of the semester, my professor asked me if I would become a teaching assistant for the following semester. I was surprised. My fellow TA was going to be an astrophysics major. And I was just a film major! I did well as a TA and at the end of the year, I was asked to become the astronomy tutor for the entire department. Only then did it occur to me that I might actually be good at understanding and applying the complex concepts of astronomy.

Why was I so reluctant to realize that I liked science, and that I was good at it? At age 18, I thought I knew myself pretty well. I had never been particularly interested in how the world worked. I didn’t enjoy reading the non-fiction books that my dad suggested. And I had never been one of those kids who played chemist in the kitchen.

There were two main issues here. The first is the way I was taught science. My science classes in high school had always been about memorization. We made a shoebox periodic table in chemistry class. In physics class, we watched movies. College was the first experience I had performing scientific inquiry. It opened up my world.


The author, in 2011, gazing in awe at the Great Refractor Telescope at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The second, more insidious issue was my self-confidence. I had to work hard at science. When I entered high school, I was not placed into the highest-level science class. In fact, only a few girls were! According to the high school tracking system, I, and many of my fellow female students, were not cut out to be scientists. As a defiant young feminist, I would tell anyone that girls were just as good at science and math as boys were, but inwardly, I had to admit that I didn’t see anything that confirmed my claims.

From an early age, girls perceive that science is for men. History books detail the accomplishments of Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. Out of 196 Nobel Laureates in physics, only two are women. At best, women scientists receive sidebars in textbooks. In a 2005 lunch talk, former Harvard University president Larry Summers infamously suggested that women were inherently less adept at math and science than men. This provoked outrage, but Summers was voicing a commonly-held assumption in our society. Louise Archer and her colleagues from Kings College in London found that even by the end of elementary school, many girls have already begun to believe that science is not for them. By the time girls reach secondary school, this idea is fully formed.

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The perception of science as a masculine field is dangerous for an aspiring female scientist because she must fight against the traditional notion of what a “good” scientist looks like. This is known as stereotype threat. The fear of confirming a stereotype—that women are not as good at science as men—can actually negatively impact a woman’s performance on scientific activities, and thus confirm the negative stereotype. Stereotype threat produces a cyclical atmosphere of failure.

Stereotype threat is especially pernicious because it can cut into motivation. Carol Dweck, one of the leading researchers in the field of motivation studies, and her colleague from Columbia University, Melissa Kamins, found that students exhibit “helpless behavior” when they believe that successful completion of a task is inherent rather than due to effort . Societal stereotypes tell girls, “You are not good at this;” therefore, girls in science classes may just give up instead of persevering. When a girl believes that her failure is connected directly to the female identity, she believes that it is a fixed constant that no amount of effort can overcome.

So what can we do about this?

1. Emphasize Effort

The first step is to emphasize what Carol Dweck calls “growth mindset.” We can treat scientific ability as something that can be achieved through effort. This works for all students, not just girls. Emphasize a student’s effort through what’s called process praise. For example, if a student completes a math problem, don’t tell her, “You are so smart!” Instead, highlight her work and independence. “You chose to approach this problem in a very interesting way.” Or, “Well done! I saw how much effort you put in.” This separates the student from the scientific process and places the focus on something under the student’s control instead of innate ability.

2. Consider the Benefits of Single-Sex Education

There are also several methods of teaching science that can directly combat stereotype threat. One is single-sex education. I went to a women’s college where I flourished in highly technical fields. Slowly, my perception that science was only for men changed because every science major I knew was female. During college, I consistently saw women excelling in all scientific fields. In an ideal world, I don’t think we would need single-sex education, but for now, it does wonders.

3. Celebrate Positive Role Models

Outside of a single-sex environment, role models can encourage girls to pursue science. If girls see women performing scientific roles in society, they learn that science is a potential career. In his article, Girls Only, Please , Jeff Eccleston suggests contacting local businesses, universities, and the American Association of University Women to find female science professionals to serve as mentors. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Catherine Drennan showed videos of a diverse group of scientists to her introductory chemistry classes. Drennan told Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times that by comparing classes that watched the videos and those that did not, Drennan and her team found that “these videos have a huge impact on developing interest in a chemistry career. In particular, there’s a very dramatic impact on the women—they are more able to see themselves as chemists. It’s not just that there are women in the videos, but that the chemists talk about solving serious contemporary problems”. These short videos take very little classroom time, yet they have a tremendous impact on humanizing and feminizing science. If you’d like to include some in your own classroom, NOVA has a great collection of videos and materials showcasing women and people of color in science careers.

4. Change the Career Culture

These research studies and practical solutions address science within the classroom. However, changes for the female student cannot fix all the problems that women face as career scientists. For example, a woman who wants to have a family has to struggle with a male-dominated culture. The current culture in academia and research science values long working hours and extensive travel for conferences and talks, which makes success in the workplace difficult for a mother. Widespread organizational and cultural changes in academia need to occur before science as a whole can have gender equality.

All is not lost however. The good news is that the future for women in science is slowly improving. More and more women are entering all science fields. In biology, for example, women receive 58% of higher education degrees. Also, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) for girls is becoming a widely-discussed subject. There are so many initiatives that raise awareness now – like Science Club for Girls in Cambridge, MA to PBS’ SciGirls , to the White House’s programming for women in STEM . Eventually, women may not have to forget their gender in single-sex classrooms in order to succeed in science. Perhaps femaleness will become associated with technical skills, enough so that women will encounter a positive stereotype in the science classroom.

As for me, I am still working on my own self-confidence in science fields. Even as I write this, I think, “Am I qualified to be telling other people about science? I don’t have a PhD. I was only an Astronomy minor. Someone will find me out and realize I don’t really know what I’m talking about.” I have to take a deep breath and think about the effort I have put into studying science, and studying science education. And know that I am right where I should be.

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