Why are there a lack of girls choosing to study science?
“Girls shared this desire for challenge, to ‘keep going deeper’, but they also expressed a desire to know why things happened in science (the causal question) rather than simply learning only what happened (the ontological question).” (Osborne and Collins, 2011).
As J. Osborne and S. Collins (2011) investigated, girls are just as interested in science as boys and they want to explore further why things happened. Therefore, other reasons must be behind why they choose to not study it at A-level and we should not assume it is because of a lack of interest. Their need to explore further could also be what is holding them back, if this is not supported in the curriculum.
As I will elaborate on more later, the lack of girls in physics especially, has always been an issue; even as the A-level entries increase, the number of females does not as much. It is a problem which must be looked into in the younger year, by teachers and parents alike, not just in year 11 when girls are choosing their A-levels. If girls are just as interested as boys, then there are clearly deeper issues effecting their education which need to be addressed. We need as many young minds curious and involved in science as possible with how reliant we are on it nowadays.
In this essay, I will be exploring the reasons behind why so few girls choose to study science further. In particular, why A-level physics is predominantly taken by boys even though girls perform just as well at GCSE. There are many reasons that can affect a girl’s choice to do science, however, these are what I believe to be the three main theories which differ them from boys:
1. How the girls see themselves in relation to their knowledge of science;
2. The influence others have on them;
3. The stereotypes in science.
After my own research I believe these to be the most important areas to focus on. All three seem to have a large impact on the number of girls in science. The aim of this discussion is to explore why these points have more of an effect on girls rather than boys and to show the reader that it has nothing to do with ability but purely reasons out of their control.
Statistics to show the problem
According to a study by the Institute of Physics, in 2013 girls were only 21% of all the A-level physics entries and 29% of A-level further mathematics entries. This problem is not new; physics has always been majority boys, "although there have been significant increases in the enrolment of women in law, medicine, and business schools, women are still underrepresented in physical science and engineering programs" (Eccles, 1987, p. 135-136). As shown by Thomson (2011), nearly half of Triple Science students at GCSE were made up of girls with 47.9% of them achieving A/A*, yet it was ranked nineteenth in the top subject choices for A-level and fifth top for boys (Thomson, 2011).
What I observed in my visits to Ralph Allen School backed these statistics. They weren’t the majority, but there were plenty of girls in top set science classes and GCSE triple science. Were as in the A-level physics class only three students out of twenty were girls, I noticed the girls were also much quieter in the A-level class.
How girls see themselves compared with boys
Girls have a tendency to underestimate their ability in science. They think that they are not good enough to study it further when they are probably more than capable. This is backed by a study done by Lindahl (2003b), they found that a lot of girls were puzzled by their high marks, “according to their own opinions they are not good in science … even if their marks are good” (Lindahl, 2003b, p. 10). These findings were of the same nature as Lyons (2003), he found that unlike boys, girls often thought they were less capable in science, even when they achieved high grades. This implies that girls need a lot more reassurance that they are good enough, were as boys do not. This explains why there would be a higher number of male entries into A-level science; boys with a wider range of grades would be comfortable studying science, girls in the lower range of these grades will most likely think they’re not smart enough to do well.
The problem with this theory is that other subjects not affected as much. Subjects such as English and History have no problem with the number of girls taking them at A-level. Therefore, it has something to do with the subject itself; science is perceived as the most difficult subject to study at school, supported by Hendley, Stables, & Stables (1996) who found that the physical science subjects are thought to be the most difficult by boys and girls alike. This supports the above, in how this characteristic about girls only seems to effect science so drastically. If it is already considered difficult and girls struggle to believe their ability, then it follows that they would doubt their capability in science the most. As most people around them will be speaking of its difficulty, reminding them that it is hard and they supposedly need to be extremely clever to do well.
“Girls’ discussions centred on the premise that, if they were ‘good at science’ and ‘achieved high marks in tests’, their confidence was greatly improved, and the subject was of greater interest to them.” (J. Osborne and S. Collins, 2001, p. 459). This statement agrees with my argument above. If their discussions were purely based on marks not being “good at science”, it would be a contradiction implying that good marks make them more interested and confident alone. Meaning that girls with high grades should be more confident in their ability. However, as they are also centred around if they’re good at the subject this shows that the two are not the same thing. Not only do they need to be achieving good marks, they also need to think that they are good at science to have the confidence to study it.
My personal experience reflects this problem, I did extremely well in GCSE maths so it seemed to very clear that I should study maths and further maths at A-level. My science grades were lower, so I assumed I was not smart enough to study any of these further, however, I did end up taking chemistry, which I went on to achieve A’s and B’s. Also, further maths was very similar to some of the physics syllabus so this would have probably been a better choice than my non-science choice.
In my visit to Ralph Allen School, I did not get a chance to speak to any students about their grades or opinions, however, from just observing classes I managed to get a look at how this behaviour described above can translate into the classroom.
When the teachers asked questions, it seemed more often than not that there would be more boys volunteering to answer than girls. In general, girls appeared to be doubting their ability more. There were a couple of teachers who asked pupils without their hands up, when girls were asked to respond a lot of them did know the answer, or they at least had a rough idea of what it was. Obviously, there were boys who did the same as this, they were just keener to answer in general. Unfortunately, this is the environment most classes have now, where they are scared to be wrong, scared of being judged by their peers. However, Ralph Allen seem to be trying very hard to improve this environment, with many teachers trying to reassure pupils that it’s okay to be wrong.
In summary, girls struggle to believe they are smart enough as they know science is challenging. They don’t always think their grades reflect their actual ability.
The influence others have
Teachers play an extremely vital role in the influence of pupils, they can make a student love or hate a subject and fuel their desire to learn more. Students are much more likely to want to study a subject if they like their teacher and they think they learn well from them. This is supported by J. Osborne and S. Collins (2001) findings. In their research, students in every group made a remark about how important teachers were in getting them interested in science; it was most notable in girls who do not do science. This implies that they did not do science because they did not have a teacher who kept them interested in the subject.
At Ralph Allen School I got the chance to observe very different teaching styles, two different year 7 science classes stood out in particular supporting this point. They were both mixed ability classes, learning the same topics, but you could see how much the attitude of the teacher affected their enthusiasm for learning. One of the teachers were very keen and clearly passionate about science and teaching. This showed in his pupils, they all seemed to get on with the work very well and have an interest in what they were learning. In the other class the teacher seemed less eager. The students got distracted much quicker and took noticeably longer to understand ideas. Most of the boys seemed to find the teachers particle demonstration funny which made them listen a bit more to understand what they were saying. Unfortunately, the girls in the class did not find it as amusing so they seemed to mess around a lot more and then they struggled answer questions later on a lot more that the boys did.
Parents also have a very important part in keeping their children interested in science. In an interview done by Lyons (2003), it was found that when girls doubt their own ability, they look for advice from older female role models, like their mothers. When children come from a science background (the parents are involved with science), it is easier to offer them the support and advice they need to be confident in science. Unfortunately, there are many children who come from non-science backgrounds; meaning it is difficult for their parents to help them in this way as they do not know much about the discipline themselves. A report by the Royal Society backs this opinion, finding that girls are less likely to study physics if they come from “families with a low level of qualifications, knowledge, and connections with science” (Vision for science and mathematics education, 2014, p. 31).
At Ralph Allen I was able to see one case of this, there was a girl in a year 8 class whose parents both had a knowledge of science. It was quite obvious she was from a scientific family, she was very keen to learn and one of the most focussed pupils in the class. I was also told by the teacher that she was one of the brightest in her year. This evidence supports the theory above, out of all the girls in the class, one of the ones with a family involved in science seems to be the keenest to learn and be involved in the area like her parents.
From my own experiences, looking back I can see that having a parent with knowledge of science would have benefited greatly. My family come from more of a business area and during school I always thought studying business was very important, that many careers would come from being good at it. Obviously, I do not know whether I would have thought the same about science if they came from that background but it seems very likely considering I did actually prefer science/mathematics in school.
With the influence parents and teachers have on girls going through school, they could have such a big impact on the decisions they make based on the advice they give them. This also relates to my first idea, girls not believing they’re smart enough even when their grades say otherwise. They need a lot of support from parents and teachers to remind them the reason they are doing well is because they are good at science. Girls seek more advice and reassurance they are doing well. This means teachers have the ability to influence girls to go down the science route, they can reassure them they are smart enough. Teacher and parents can also make girls more aware of the science careers available to them. It is up to teachers, especially female teachers in science, to promote the availability of science careers for girls. J. Osborne and S. Collins (2001), found that there was a lack of specific careers being made clear to students. Without specific jobs students will just think of the stereotypes, and often link this back to being male dominated jobs.
Peers also have a major impact of the decisions students make; generally, girls want to be doing as well as their peers while in school. You (2011) found that children want to be accepted by their peers and this has a huge effect on their school experience. This implies, if science is seen as a nerdy subject by a lot of the students then girls are a lot less likely to consider taking it. They will not want their peers to see them as ‘nerdy’ or ‘weird’. Cheryan, Master and Melzoff (2015), stated that girls are taught to be social beings, so generally girls will turn away from studying a subject which makes them seem anti-social to their peers.
In summary, teachers and parents have a lot of influence over how young girls perceive science. They can offer them advice and reassurance on how smart they are, keep them interested in science and show them the career paths available to them if they pursue the science route.
Stereotypes in science
Science has always had a stigma around it, that it is a man’s subject; like I mentioned briefly in the previous section, the stereotype is that all scientists are middle-aged men. This is certainly going to have an effect on how girls see science, they probably don’t want to be in a classroom of mainly boys let alone a career path dominated by them. There is also the idea that it is harder for women to succeed in male dominated jobs, as they are seen as not as capable of doing their jobs. Research by Wellcome Trust showed that girls can be put off doing science as they are a “minority in science classes”. A year 10 girl they interviewed mentioned how the boys in the class can stop you from concentrating as well.
Gunderson (2011) found that one of the stereotypes is that women’s mathematics ability is not as strong as males, implying the stereotype that physics is for men as it is considered as the more maths like science. This suggests that women are more likely to be questioned in their ability and made to feel inferior to men. This is going to eventually lower their confidence and start making them doubt their own skills in science, thinking that men are better than them. Then, with my first theory, there a multiple things lowering girls confidence and making them think they are not good enough to be part of science.
There is another stereotype held to science which suggests that most scientists are fairly awkward and anti-social. This will turn young girls off a future in science as they don’t want to be associated with this personality. Personally, I was put off accounting as accountants are ‘typically’ known as boring. Research by Cheryan, Master and Melzoff (2015) found that girls did not want a future career in science as they did not want to be part of this stereotype. Even at university I experience this quite a lot. When other non-mathematics students, especially ones from sports clubs, find out what I study they are often quite surprised and say something along the lines of “oh you don’t look like a typically maths student”, often referring to the fact I have a social life outside of my studies. Science students refer to the stereotype as well; when students are asking each other about science lecturers a lot of the time one of the first questions asked will be, “are they your typical social awkward professor?”. Even though we know this is not the normal for a student studying science, we still think the older generation hold this stereotype.
The only evidence I saw related to this at Ralph Allen School was in the A-level physics class at I mentioned before, with only 3 out of 20 being girls. They much quieter in class than the boys and they did not offer to answer any questions when the teacher asked the whole class. They also seemed a lot more unsure of themselves, quite often asking the teacher for help because they were unsure whether they were doing the right thing. Their attitudes could be because they feel outnumbered by the boys and did not want to embarrass themselves by getting the answer wrong. It links back to my idea about how girls doubt themselves more than boys and the environment they are learning in making them scared of being judged.
This theory links back to the influence parents and teachers have on girls at school. If these stereotypes are forced upon girls at a young age, they are going to think this is normal and so it will be become the norm. Eccles (2014) found that parents opinions have a big impact on what path their child chooses, so if parents stereotype science in this way, even if it is unconsciously, then this will have a bearing on what their children think about science. Hence, children will assume that science is for men and so are more likely to distance themselves away from studying it.
Also the influence peers have links back to the stereotype about ‘social isolation’, if young girls are heavily influenced by their peers then they will not want to be perceived as anti-social and unfortunately this is the stereotype that generally follows science. Therefore girls are not likely to pick science as they think it will stop them from being accepted by their peers if this is how they all perceive science.
This essay has been exploring the reasons behind why girls do not choose to study science, mainly A-level physics. There are many reasons why girls are turning away from science more than boys. To show the magnitude of this issue I stated some statistics on the gender gap in science and the academic levels of girls at GCSE. I then went on to explore the three main factors in which I believe have the most effect on girls choosing not to study science, showing how the general nature of girls is making it hard for them to choose science. Also, showing that these stereotypes we hold about science is steering girls away from science from an early age, unconsciously teaching them that it is not a job for women. All three of my theories relate back to each other. If it is in a girl’s nature to doubt their ability, teachers and parents need to give girls more reassurance in their own capability. Parents and teachers should also be trying to steer girls away from these stereotypes especially if they are causing them to doubt their science ability even more than they already do.
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