An education on science and gender

On 12 November 2009 Sue Halliday was presented with the SCI Education Award by former SCI President Sir Tom McKillop. The award recognised her inspiring revitalisation of the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre. Sue talks here about her experiences with teaching science to boys and girls, and particularly about her efforts to encourage girls into the field.

‘I wanted to be a pathologist from about 14, and was advised by the careers department to do three sciences up to A level, but my chemistry was a disaster. There were only three girls in the class. The teacher really didn’t want girls in his class and made it very obvious, so I really gave up working. However, my interest in pathology carried on and I applied for a job in a hospital laboratory where they sent us to university to train part time. Suddenly, there was a reason to work, to understand the science I was using every day in the lab. Also, if we didn’t pass the exams, we lost our job – a very real incentive!

After a career break to bring up my family, I decided to train to be a primary teacher. After some years, I progressed to a position at county hall level as an advisor, doing more work at the transition age (primary through to secondary).

A recent study published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that boys perform better than girls when it comes to science education. In my experience at primary school there is no real difference apart from girls having better listening skills, so they understand what is asked of them. In mixed-sex secondary schools, the boys are often more vocal and eager to try things out. In small group work, the boys often take the lead. If computers are used, the boys regularly take the lead.

If it is single-sex, the girls are able to progress as well as the boys, but often do not take risks. I find they prefer to be more conservative in their ideas and predictions. Many girls don’t want to get it wrong. In single-sex schools, the girls expect to be listened to and are bolder. They are just as able as boys in all aspects, so I am beginning to think that this is a social problem rather than an academic one.

I think that expectations of achievement are stereotyped so girls are allowed to choose softer options; it is expected that girls will do biology, not physics and chemistry. In addition, the sort of career a girl might choose is stereotyped – it is fine to be a doctor, but it takes a brave girl to do engineering. Many parents, especially if they didn’t do science at school, have no idea where the study can lead, and so do not encourage girls to take science further.

When it comes to career choices and what influences girls' decisions to pursue science degrees, it is still hard to find female role models that girls find attractive. In this media-driven age where celebrity rules, young women are very susceptible to image and, unfortunately, it is hard to find younger women who are at the forefront of science and care about their appearance, music, film and all the other things that are important to today’s young women.

It sounds shallow but the pressure is intense on girls and until we see good looking women on TV doing science on a regular basis I don’t think the subject will be taken up. Just think of what television series CSI has done for forensics; when I was working in pathology, people thought I was creepy doing autopsies; now, it is considered sexy! That is the sort of effect the media can have.

Motivating girls and young women to pursue scientific careers is a huge part of our agenda at Catalyst. I have worked hard to recruit and train younger women into our team. We are always looking at how we can encourage girls to be bolder and take a lead. We have special ‘girls only’ days, which showcase how well they can really do. We deliberately seek out young women to use as examples in our career films and in our interactive theatre films.

I am developing a series of workshops that unashamedly focus on the science of things that really interest girls, such as cosmetics. I use what we would consider to be gender-stereotypical interests to grab their attention: for example, by exploring the chromatography of lipstick they will be learning some quality science. I am aware that I am 'playing to the gallery' but if I can get girls interested rather than turned off, then I will use whatever means I have to!’

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