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Towards overcoming gender-specific pressures in STEM

In today’s blog we talk to Dr. Elena Makarova, PhD from the University of Bern, and Professor of Educational Sciences and Director of the Institute for Educational Sciences at the University of Basel.

David: The ability to create a STEM culture that values interest and talent independently of gender surely lies on a spectrum. Are there places where one finds academic institutions that can teach us something in this respect?

Elena: I am not aware of a particular institution which could function as an example, but there are different ways to promote inclusive culture within STEM-subject teaching. According to our research findings, the following aspects of inclusive teaching practices could improve female and male students’ interests and motivation for STEM subjects:

1. Informing students about career in the STEM fields and showing female and male role models. Female role models in STEM are especially important for girls and young women as they affect their motivation, identification, self-esteem, and career aspirations in STEM.

2. Insuring comprehensible teaching of math and sciences for all students. The material should be thoroughly presented and explained by using different formats of presentation.

3. Providing individual support and encouragement – especially in case of problems – to students.

4. Connecting the subject-specific matters with everyday experience of male and female students by using teaching materials and examples which incorporate their previous socialization experiences.

David: Do we understand why some STEM disciplines do better than others when it comes to resolving these issues?

Elena: One of the explanations could be associated with different patterns of gender-science stereotype. In our recent study we could show that students not only perceive chemistry, math and physics as masculine, but also that there is a considerable difference in the strength of the association of each subject with the male gender. The strongest gender stereotype has been attributed to math as students perceived math most strongly as a masculine subject, followed by physics and then chemistry, which has the weakest masculine connotations. Moreover, the association of the three science subjects with masculine traits were stronger among female students compared to male students. Finally, our study has shown that young women who chose STEM as a field of study at university perceived all three school subjects — math, physics, and chemistry — as less masculine than did those young women who chose other majors.

David: I have noticed a pattern of subtle resentment and backlash towards women with original ideas in my STEM subdiscipline, which I interpret as an expectation on the part of some people that women should observe, carry out experiments, and report their findings, but leave the deep thinking associated with producing meaning to others. Is my experience simply anecdotal?

Elena: It is a well known fact that teachers and parents attribute achievements in math and science differently for female and male students: Male students’ achievements are commonly attributed to their high abilities and natural talent and in case of female students to their persistent and hard work. So your example could be interpreted in line with it, i.e. hard-working women should do the research-based work, but to produce the meaning it is a task for more talented men.

David: Does research in psychology shed light on how exclusion operates in STEM fields?

Elena: From the psychological point of view the persistence of horizontal gender segregation in educational and occupational fields is a result of stereotypical beliefs about women and men. These beliefs include attitudes toward female and male family roles, female and male occupations, and gender-associated perceptions of the self. As bipolar constructs, gender stereotypes imply that what is masculine is not feminine and vice versa suggests that gender roles and their occupants are highly visible in everyday contexts and that gender stereotypes emerge in response to the observation of women and men in different social roles and in role-linked activities related to occupational choices. Accordingly, the low proportion of women in STEM leads to the spread of a gender stereotypical image of math and science as a male domain and beliefs about male supremacy in technical and math-intensive fields. In turn, such beliefs affect young people’s career choices, leading to a mutual reinforcement of gender stereotypes, and gender gaps in career related interests and choices.

David: Thank you Professor!

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