Why is science not for the girls


Historically, professions, and systems of knowledge that are associated with women and girls have been considered to have less value, and have therefore been treated with less seriousness. Over the past few decades however, such patterns of thinking have been substantially challenged, and even scientifically disproven at multiple times. However, socially and culturally, not just among the general society, but even among the scholarly, such prejudices persist subconsciously through practice. Instead of attempted to prove why such prejudices are unbased and arguing that there is no form of knowledge that is lesser than the next, it might be worth investigating the ways in which these prejudices persist and have persisted historically.

Taking the case of a particularly scholarly group of people can be useful here. Tim Creswell, a geographer who has authored a seminal text – "Geographic Though: A Critical Introduction", charts the trajectory of the discipline of geography, specifically human geography, in this very book. Starting from Ancient Greece, he looks at the different conditions that have shaped the development of the discipline of geography, and equally the conditions that have prevented its development as well. Between the 1940s and 60s, within the field, as reflective of the patterns of thought outside of the discipline as well, he observes and notes a tension between those who aspired to make geography a "hard science" and the others in the discipline.

In this context, he makes a general statement about this tendency that existed at the time, both within and outside the discipline of geography. “Science has always been prestigious. The “harder” the science, the more prestigious it is. Physics is often seen as the pinnacle of this hierarchy with its constant search for laws which might explain large portions of the known and unknown universe. Natural sciences such as biology, chemistry, and geology share some of this glory. But the closer we get to human life the lower down the hierarchy we fall. Social science has always had this problem. Anthropology, sociology, and human geography are all seen as, in the words of David Mercer “soft", "emotional" and "undisciplined" subjects”” The terms that had come to be associated with the social sciences – emotional, soft, undisciplined - are terms that were also associated with women.

Moving ahead in time and wide in terms of categories of brilliance, an instance among lawyers in the late-90"s and early 2000s could also serve some purpose here. In the movie "Dark Waters", which is based on the story of the lawyer Robert Bilott, who took the multi-billion dollar company DuPont de Numours Inc to court on behalf of over a 1,000 plaintiffs who were harmed by the chemical pollution by the company. Bilott"s wife, who was a lawyer too, but had quit her practice to dedicate her time to her children, provides an example of the kind of association with women, especially within the work/knowledge production arena, that was alluded to by the earlier geographers.

At a formal event hosted by the law firm that Robert worked at,  while Sarah(Robert"s wife) was in conversation with one of the senior lawyers and mentions her inclination to tend to her family, as reason for her quitting her practice, she is met with a snide criticism. The senior lawyer at the firm says “That"s the thing about lady lawyers” – implying that women are simply too "soft" and "emotional" to be able to have a career, let alone become successful lawyers. Although women are equal "by law", the social gatherings that lawyers take part in, seem to be lying outside of this law.

So, it is clear that scholarliness and success can still very much be exclusionary and discriminatory, especially when it comes to the "sciences" or "r"ational" professions. In this light it is important to look at how this seeps in through the education practices – how is science taught? Why does it not address this wrongful tendency to make science so "masculine"? Are these prejudices baked right into the education system and method?

It certainly does seem so! A group of education researchers from the North Carolina State University have conducted an experiment called Muddy Sneakers – which as the name suggests, involves a group of students studying outdoors. They simultaneously also studied another group of students who were studying in traditional classroom settings. The experiment involved a science and math class, simultaneously indoors and outdoors. The result that the group gathered indicated that there were significant differences in girls" grades between the two groups. “When researchers evaluated students" science grades by gender, they saw that girls who participated in the outdoor science program maintained their science grades on average, while girls" average grades in the traditional science classes dropped.”

What are some ways in which the traditional science classrooms and teaching methods continue to reproduce such an inequality, one which presents barriers to women who want to enter the field? Alison Kelly, in her paper "The construction of Masculine Science" published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, notes – “In terms of numbers.. physical science at school is clearly male. More boys than girls study it, more men than women teach it; the images of scientists which children encounter both in and out of school are predominantly male.” She also draws on a theory presented earlier by another academic – "the notions of appropriate behaviour for each sex [are] converted into the appropriate academic disciplines.”

The researches over at NC, who had conducted the Muddy Sneakers experiment, highlight through the findings of their research that “ girls start to disengage with science around age 10.” So, it is clear that as children approach adolescence, their gender identities, and behaviours that they are expected to exhibit in order to conform to their gender identity, take precedence over their academic interests. Girls, around the age of 10, start to function more as "girls" than as "students" in a science classroom where they are repeatedly reminded through the subject material and its predominantly masculine environment, that they are in fact different within this sphere of education – they are not "scientists", but "girls".

It is not simply a passive reason such as this. For instance if you compare the number of female STEM students with the number of female STEM workers in the market, you can see a drop in the proportions in the latter in comparison to the former. Thus, although women are challenging the status quo by actively attempting to pursue careers in STEM by choosing to opt for STEM related studies – in both bachelors and masters level education  - this does not translate well.

The combination of a lack of female scientists that results in a lack of confidence in their own ability to succeed can explain this outcome. Researchers Jeffrey A. Miles and Stefanie E. Naumann, published a paper titled "Science self-efficacy in the relationship between gender and science identity" in the International Journal of Science Education. In the paper they outline how the self-perception of students of science affects their success levels. “In science, in particular, individuals who perceive that they are able to succeed in science will be more likely to choose science tasks, work hard to complete them, and continue when challenges erupt (Britner & Pajares, 2006). On the other hand, individuals who do not perceive that they are able to succeed in science tend to put forth minimal effort in science tasks, give up more easily, and try to avoid them altogether.”

They cite multiple previous research that shows that female STEM students have far lower self-efficacy levels than their male counterparts. This difference is so stark that “ In fact, female students with "A" grades often had comparable physics self-efficacy perceptions to male students with "C" grades.” Such an observation was also echoed by the North Carolina University researchers and the result of their Muddy Sneakers experiment, whereby they specify that self-efficacy rates drop as a result of a lack of an “attitude of persistence despite failure”.

It is clear that the female science and STEM students and researches feel less confident about themselves in the discipline or workforce because they cannot afford to fail – it would result in lower grades, lower paying jobs, etc. This fear is heightened in women more than men because any instance of failure or visible incompetence on the part of females, is more visible to the employers than when this happens with the male students and workers. This is because of the existing prejudice, which gets problematically reinforced when one encounters lower under confidence among female STEM researchers. The idea that women are "soft" and "emotional" once again looms large in their own heads, much like in the 1960"s.