Science doesn’t put girls off Science, other girls do

(Note: This post is entirely personal opinion, I am in no way qualified to talk about Psychology… but I’m going to anyway!)

Earlier on today I went to a school hockey tournament, and I started thinking about why I don’t play hockey. I realised that I’m probably the victim of some dodgy classical conditioning from when I was younger. When I was at school, time and time again the action of “playing sport” would result in “feeling unhappy” because of the unfriendliness of my team mates. The interesting part is…I now can’t remember most of those girls names nor do I care less what they think of me, but my illogical aversion to hockey still remains.

What if the same thing is causing the nation’s girls to avoid Science?

I once read an interesting theory about child cognitive development (which I can’t find, but this article is similar) which broadly stated that children go through five stages of awareness, from being unaware of their own identity, through self-awareness, to meta-awareness at which point:

“Individuals are not only aware of what they are but how they are in the mind of others”

Emma Mulqueeny’s assertion that “Year 8 is too late” and the observation of many classroom teachers is that girls seem to be perfectly interested in Science subjects up until around Year 8 (age 12-13), at which point they turn away in their droves. At this age, many girls are maturing and becoming increasingly aware of the way they are perceived by others. Even a girl who has previously enjoyed scientific tasks will start to pick up on very subtle cues from her peers if she expresses visible interest in Science, for instance teasing, name calling or others expressing a dislike of the subject receiving a positive reaction. This causes Science to be associated with negative feelings and so she will unconsciously do her best to disassociate herself from it. To paraphrase what Simon Humphreys said at the CAS Network of Excellence meeting,

“a kid who spends hours practicing the violin is a genius, a kid who spends hours on the computer is a weirdo”.

So are we missing the point?
Maybe we are making a false assumption that  the reason girls are not taking Computing (and Physics) is because they haven’t realised how cool and interesting it is, and we just need to show them what it contains to enthuse them. Whilst I am definitely in favour of more Computing in as many places as possible, I think this might not be entirely accurate. What if girls know exactly what a career in Computing entails, but they don’t choose it because it isn’t socially acceptable for women, a belief that has been subtly propagated throughout their life starting by something one of their friends said when they were 11. Like my hockey anecdote, the stimulus is gone, but the emotional response remains.

What are we doing about it?

I presented at the CAS Working Group meeting about our new sub-group initiative called #include (@casinclude on twitter) which aims to promote Computer Science for all, challenge the stereotypes and increase the diversity in students studying the subject at school – please check it out and let me know if there is anything you can do to support us. I realised in the discussion of ideas afterwards that KS2 and early KS3 is a crucial stage for catching girls before negative associations are formed. I also know that this is a problem which is everybody’s responsibility, we can’t succeed if we are just a bunch of mildly peeved women hopping up and down in a room. We have a huge job ahead of us, and no one really has the answers, but attitudes and perceptions do change with time – we just need to be part of the catalyst for change.

(:O! xkcd wedding cake from http://blog.pinkcakebox.com/xkcd-comic-wedding-cake-2010-09-05.htm)


6 thoughts on “Science doesn’t put girls off Science, other girls do

  1. Hi. Your post left me with a couple of thoughts. One (bit off the wall maybe) is about the transformation of cycling as a social practice in London in the last 10 years – I think it has been a similar kind of phenomenon – cycling was a very minority activity because it was socially unacceptable, in the perception of others. I am sure someone has analysed development, but don’t have any reference to hand: key point about this is that changing attitudes was the result of a summation of a variety of activities, more and less formal/planned. The other thing I thought about is a paper by Seymour Papert and Sherry Turkle from 20+ years ago on “epistemological pluralism” – the argument is about maths/science/computing becoming “acceptable” to people when they are able to make their own epistemological take on the subjects [here’s the article in full: http://papert.org/articles/EpistemologicalPluralism.html ]

    1. That’s an interesting point of view, I’d never think to link something like cycling to this situation at all but you’re right that suddenly everyone wants to cycle places. Maybe the recent spike is also in part due to the Olympics? I haven’t read all of your link but it looks interesting 🙂

  2. You are definitely onto something. A study by the Girls Scouts last year showed that 74% of teen girls are interested in STEM, but they also found:
    – girls believe that other girls their age aren’t considering a career in STEM
    – girls are uncomfortable being the only girl in class
    – girls believe they would have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously

    Combine that with a finding that girls determine a positive or negative attitude towards subjects like computer science by age 13 and we’ve got a recipe for gender inequity. I totally agree that we need to reach girls in primary & elementary school to break down the stereotypes of CS. I’ve been working with Patrice Gans, CSTA K-8 Task Force Chair to also provide computer science for all resources. Our work in progress is at https://sites.google.com/a/kimxtom.com/cs4all/.

      1. Oh right – work in progress and all. If you DM @kimxtom with your e-mail address, I’ll add you. Would like to get your feedback since it is a very similar idea/philosophy to #include.

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