IOP conference on gender explores how to open more doors in science

23 October 2015

Gender still has a major influence on the subjects young people choose to study, particularly physics, but such stereotyping is not insurmountable, according to a report launched by the IOP on 20 October at the Opening Doors Conference.

Dame Barbara Stocking
Dame Barbara Stocking, president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Designed as an interdisciplinary conference on gender in education, the event brought together 160 delegates to hear insights from sociology, neuroscience and psychology as well as from the Opening Doors Project, which has been working in 10 schools to try to counter the effects of gender stereotyping in subject choice.

The project was organised by the IOP and part-funded by the Government Equalities Office. Some of the lessons learned are summarised in the IOP publication Opening Doors: a guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools. Speaking at the conference, the IOP’s education adviser, Professor Peter Main, said previous work by the Institute had shown that a school’s culture was an important factor in whether girls chose to study physics at A-level, and in the proportion of boys who chose “gendered” subjects such as English or psychology, in which girls are currently over-represented.

Work with the 10 schools included site visits and discussions with staff and students, resulting in a confidential report to the head about the good practice the visitors had seen and any issues they had noted, with recommendations for the future. A key takeaway message was the need for someone on the senior management to champion work to counter gender stereotyping, and better training and support for staff on gender issues, Main said.

Schools had policies on racist, homophobic and sexist language, but while there was zero tolerance for the first two, sexist language about girls was treated differently and was sometimes dismissed as banter, he said. Preparations before the visits and conversations during them had led teachers themselves to realise how they could avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes.

There was a lot of research showing that girls fear failure in subjects that have a reputation for being harder, Main said. The Opening Doors team also found that schools tended to insist on an A or A* star at GCSE before allowing a student to take A-level physics, whereas for most subjects they required only a B. “There is an attitude in British society that you have to have an innate ability and hard work is only for the people who don’t have this natural talent. It’s a peculiarly British thing and it’s affecting gendered subject choice quite severely.” The IOP had long fought for all subjects at A-level to have equal grade severity, he said.

This was supported by Professor Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s College London. People tried to explain away the fact that girls who took physics did well in it by claiming that girls are plodding and work hard while the boys are naturally brilliant and lazy, she said. “It is taken for granted that physics is hard and masculine, and that can lead to self-censorship and self-exclusion,” she said. “There are studies around how students experience physics and femininity as oppositional to each other. Self-identifying ‘girly’ girls are less likely to articulate a science aspiration.”

Archer said there were powerful influences from your internal attitudes and those of your family, class and sex that determined whether you would see involvement in science as “normal for people like me”. This meant that efforts to interest girls in science, to present them with role models or convince them of its career potential would not be enough to effect change, she said. There had to be work with children from a younger age and with their families, as well as structural change, she said.

The conference also heard from Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham, who spoke on Gender and the Brain. She explained that there were differences in male and female brains in the size of certain structures, the parts of the brain involved in various functions and water and blood flow within it. But interpreting these was not straightforward, she said. For example, males had more white matter and less grey matter than females, but some studies seemed to suggest that females made more efficient use of the white matter that they had. Genes, sex hormones and experiences in life all affected the brain, and it had substantial plasticity, she said.

Dr Gijsbert Stoet, a reader in psychology at the University of Glasgow, presented some findings from studies showing gender differences in such areas as verbal and spatial abilities and noted that evolutionary psychologists attributed these to innate differences in men and women driven by evolutionary pressures, while socio-structural psychologists argued that they were caused by the different experiences of men and women in society. He argued that girls and boys were made to make subject choices at too early an age, a view that was shared by all of the speakers.

The conference was chaired by Dame Barbara Stocking, president of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. She said there had been substantial support from delegates for the measures suggested in the Opening Doors report. Though the conference had not covered the issues concerning boys’ subject choices as thoroughly as had been hoped, it had shown that a lot could be done in the areas that had been discussed. Ending on a personal note, she said: “I get sincerely distressed when I find that there are girls who are at Cambridge, who have got in with the requisite number of A*s or AAs, who still end up feeling that they’re not very good at this subject called maths, physics or engineering. It is truly shocking that at that level people are still being made to feel that girls are not good at these things and will never be as good as boys.”

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