Cooking up a twitter storm. Or: What not to do about the gender divide in science

Today, an article appeared on the Guardian website, not in the science section (it was on the US news blog), but tweeted by @guardianscience and containing the word ‘science’ in the title. About girls and science, its headline claimed to explain ‘why the gender gap exists and what to do about it’.

I’ve written about women in science before, as there is a large and worrying body of research which suggests that women are less likely to pursue science careers than men, and that there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby women are disproportionally lost from science (or indeed STEM careers in general) at all stages throughout their career. Not only that, but attempts to address this problem have sometimes faltered, been massively misguided, or downright offensive.

So, an article addressing these problems is exactly the type of thing I want to read. However, I didn’t have to get far in to this one to realise these were not the droids I was looking for*. The author cited a couple of studies as evidence that girls perform worse at STEM subjects than boys, though her argument was slightly hard to follow as one study showed girls doing better than boys, apart from in US, UK and Canada, whereas the other suggested girls do worse at maths in countries with poorer gender equality. Anyway, that aside, she used the premise that environmental differences between the way girls and boys are brought up affects their STEM ability and motivation, to peddle some dangerous or baffling ‘tips from the experts’.

Ignoring the complete lack of links (there are ‘sources’ at the bottom of the article, but it’s not clear what comes from where, and these are books, rather than peer reviewed research) to evidence for these ‘tips from the experts’, the huge problem I have with this article is that, rather than discuss how we could remove the gender divide, bringing up our children as equals and removing these imaginary differences between little girls and little boys, the article gleefully points out ways in which girls are different to boys (real or imaginary), and leaps upon these as a way to reinvent teaching science to girls, because they don’t ‘get it’ when it’s done more generically. It’s completely backwards; the problem isn’t girls’ ability to learn science, it’s the motivation and encouragement to pursue and enjoy science that needs to be fostered and nurtured. And that’s before we get to the pseudoscience.

Talk of girls using the left, or language side of the brain, being more responsive to colour, and needing to read instructions aloud are ridiculous, but at times the article is sexist (learn science through cooking? Women learn best when science is applied to domestic scenarios?) or actively gives bad advice (learn by rote if you don’t understand? Play with Lego, but only to follow the instructions?!). I sincerely hope there are no parents of young girls reading this who think these are good ideas.

ScienceGrrl was originally set up after the ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ video debacle, but articles like this remind me once again of its relevance and importance. There are women in science (and despite what this article seems to imply at the end, there are plenty of excellent female role models in science), and we need to encourage the next generation to follow in our footsteps. Applying 1940s science-of-the-kitchen logic to engaging them is not the answer, not when there are science museums full of hands on activities and wonder, people like Fran Scott and Maggie Philbin on TV showing the awesome-ness of science, and organisations like ScienceGrrl keen to get a diverse range of inspirational women in to schools to engage first hand with the female (and male) STEM leaders of tomorrow. Science isn’t something different for boys and girls. It’s for everyone, and it rocks.

Or, if you want the tl;dr version, here’s what Anna Zecharia, ScienceGrrl’s head of Comms, said in the comments:

[color-box color=”white”]”ScienceGrrl was formed in response to laziness of this kind. And, whoa, isn’t it multi-layered laziness?! First, many of the claims are unsubstantiated by evidence. Second, it reinforces the narrow view that all girls must be collapsed into a limited stereotype. Third, it delights in the ‘gender divide’ and the advice it gives reads as patronising because it is: girls can be shown the world, but only if it isn’t too overwhelming for them, poor lambs. Articles like this show us that true equality may not be here yet, but the ScienceGrrl motto is to be positive and to move forward with action. We believe the best way to challenge such attitudes is to celebrate the diversity of women: to give girls a wide range of role models to choose from, so that when they find the one they identify with they can be themselves, not one of many suffocating in a box. Science is for everyone.”[/color-box]

Basically: that.

Now, I’m off to talk myself (aloud) through this jigsaw puzzle. Where are my safety goggles?

*Suzi’s favourite Star Wars droid is EV-9D9.

For further comment on this article, here are some excellent remarks by Athene Donald, Becky Wragg-Sykes, Chris Chambers and Kate Clancy.