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Girls, Science & Social Context: how to improve STEM attainment in teenagers

This morning I've been up early, having a nice session of #madwriting with a science acquaintance I know through Twitter on the other side of the world. We met up for an hour of focused work, reported back our progress, and I felt energized for a day of work.
Then... I saw a link to a piece in the Guardian about girls and attainment in science, already being criticised by others, and it set my mind spinning.

The article in question reports on a study confirming that teenage girls in many countries match or outperform boys at school in STEM subjects, but that this is not the case in Britain, the US or Canada. The author of the article also points to other research that says girls who are more confident in their abilities are more likely to choose STEM subjects and do well in them. Unsurprising perhaps, and this was followed by some obviously well-meant advice about helping female children become familiar with science as an idea, and increase their confidence.

What has caused a negative reaction is the fact that some of the advice seems to ignore the conclusions of the studies cited in the article: that it is social factors, not innate ones, which prejudice female attainment in STEM. So alongside sensible advice to not simply explain problems to a child but try to get her to think it through for herself, there are bizarrely backwards-looking statements like this:

"Scientific theory fires her imagination when connected to current or domestic affairs, or when she can empathize"

or this:

"So, girls deconstruct math concepts verbally. Looking at something on a board or screen is not enough. They need to unpack the problem using language. They need to "talk it through"."

Now, I'm not a brain expert, and I don't know how strong the evidence is that girls innately examine problems using the 'language side' of their brain. But I do know that saying girls are most excited by science in contexts related to "current / domestic affairs" (celebrity gossip? cleaning?) or when it makes them feel gooey is simply advising people to corral girls within the existing narrow borders of femininity, rather than bust out of them. Girls are simply rewarded for being girly, that is, for not pursuing problem-solving as its own virtue, but instead within a socialised context of domesticity or emotional value, which is what they're taught by society that they're mostly good for.
Similarly, even if girls do utilise different areas of their brain (from what age? do they learn this too?), promoting the notion that girls can't quite grasp things without talking about it strays a little close to the 'gossiping female' cliche. I'm sure that's not the author's intention, but it doesn't help in challenging how girls are presented.

The other unfortunate suggestion is that cooking is a great way to encourage girls to get into science. It may well be true that making food requires weighing substances, and baking is a kind of experiment. But to suggest the following, "If you encourage your daughter to experiment in the kitchen, she will be more comfortable experimenting at school" not only brings another stereotype of female behaviour into the article, it also misses the main problem with teenage female attainment.

Girls will not be more likely to do science experiments at school, or maths or indeed any other subjects if they do it at home, because the social context among their peers is entirely different. I remember very well what being 15 felt like, and I can go and read the (excruciatingly self-centred) diary that I kept to prove it. Although like most children I loved learning, not only science but languages, history, geography, when I hit puberty this drastically changed. I remember my main concern wasn't what I wanted to be when I 'grew up', it was, frankly, sex. There are these things you might have heard of called hormones that kick in from about the age of 12/13, and for most teenagers- girls and boys- this means that their main preoccupation becomes the pursuit of being attractive, which is not just about sexual attractiveness but also being popular and 'cool' or whatever the word is nowadays.

Whilst I was still internally really interested in science as a teenager (always watching nature and science documentaries in the safety of my home), I knew that the way to pull a fit boy- there's some 90s teenage lingo for you- was not to attentively listen is class, never mind speak up with answers or be seen to work hard at a science experiment. I think it's safe to say that society's idea of attractive women hasn't moved on since the mid-90s and may even have narrowed; to me at least, it seems there are even fewer ways for teenage girls to be sexy now. This of course was the motivation for the poorly received European Commission promotional video "Science- It's a Girl Thing", which basically sought to show girls that they could do science and *blokes would still fancy them*. Yes, it's horrible clunky and regressive, but apparently it did strike a chord with some in the age group it was aimed at.
Comments from two girls about the video (taken from the comments following the article):

"I don't think those making negative comments about the video remember just how alienating being interested in science can be, especially for girls. It shouldn't just be for the quiet geeks, science should be for ALL girls and like it or not, us teens identify more with the girls depicted in the video than with white coats and glum faces... All we want as young girls is to feel 'normal', not pasted into a stereotype of dull, boring and handles test tubes well!"

There's been some great reactions to the original EC video, for example a hilarious parody video done by real women scientists showing them confident and at ease with poking fun at stereotypes. Additionally, a group of female Polar Environmental Change graduate students have made a video showing them out in the field in Greenland obviously having a ball, and this is the fantastic video made by the girls quoted above, which won the EC's own crowd-sourced competition to create a replacement.

Until we realise that the most important thing to the teenage cohort is being socially accepted and also therefore regarded as attractive, we won't make much progress on promoting STEM. I'm certainly not arguing that we should promote the horribly pervasive view that girls and women should *only* aspire to do things because they will be seen as sexy for doing them. This is the root of female objectification, and we should not fall into that trap: I don't agree for example with the EC approach of painting science as glittery and full of lipsticks and swooning men. But when you're 15, your hormones are raging and that person you really fancy is sitting in the same Physics class as you, it's difficult to think straight about your motivations for doing anything, never mind doing your bit for gender equality by shouting out an answer to a question. Until they get past the ecstasies and tragedies of being a teenager, we have to help girls out in fighting all their battles, and asking them to do something that their mates regard as social death isn't helping.

What we need to do instead is challenge the idea that using your brain, speaking up, questioning the world, making an effort, being clever, is not cool, not sexy. It's not enough just to say "science is fun!!!". We've got to work out a strategy to show that science offers social rewards, otherwise it will be stuck in the 'boffin/nerd/geek' corner, only for those willing to rough out the negative social impact for the rush of curiosity. This is partly what the Science Grrl project is trying to do by showing the massive diversity of real people who do science- yes, some of us are nerds, but there's a whole lot of inspirational, attractive and sexy scientists. It would help if STEM achievement was rewarded materially too: if scientists earned a decent amount of money, undoubtedly more young people would aspire to this as a career. But it's also how we value scientists and research as a society- we need to show that doing science IS sexy, using your brain to find amazing things out about the world IS attractive. A pop-culture example that springs to mind is Tony Stark from the Iron Man films- although he's described as an industrialist or businessman, he's also clearly a scientist. Yes, Robert Downey Jr. isn't exactly ugly, but it's the ferocity of Stark's intelligence, watching his brain flitting from one science and engineering problem to another, and his confidence in his own capabilities that is also immensely attractive. 

This is the image we need to promote to girls (and boys) to stop the drastic drop-off in STEM interest in teenagers. Helping girls how to think for themselves, pointing out cool sciencey things in our own homes are good ideas for younger children. But when the we're talking about teenagers on their way to becoming adults, we really need to not only bring the sexy back to science, but re-invent it on the way.


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