What is the problem
Research shows that the way sciences are communicated to youth, in and out of school, is not yet gender inclusive. What is more, young Europeans, both girls and boys, still have very little idea of the variety of careers that are possible in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the skills that are relevant for those career pathways. In the coming years, with Europe’s knowledge economy developing and new technologies on the rise, skills in STEM will be needed for a broader range of careers than ever before.
In most of Europe, female students are no longer characterised as non-traditional students, as an increasing proportion of girls attend higher education in general. However, although in Europe slightly more female than male youth attend higher education, many science and engineering study programmes still struggle to attract female students (OECD, 2015). Only one of three STEM graduates is female; a proportion which has changed very little the past 15 years (EUROSTAT, 2011). Furthermore, within STEM there are large variations in the gender distribution of students across study programmes, and within some sciences female students are still the minority. In particular, the biological and medical sciences have more than 50% female students, whereas women are minorities in physics, computer science, and engineering (European Commission, 2009). It is clear that if more female students pursued a STEM-career, the concerns about how Europe will compete in the global STEM knowledge-economy in the future would be alleviated.
Science is gendered
Science has historically been celebrated in Western culture as a rigorous method of producing objective, unbiased truths about the world (Faulkner, 2000; Sinnes & Løken, 2014). However, when women entered the institutions of knowledge in Europe and the US in the 1960s, they were persistently and severely underrepresented in the sciences. This gender gap was thought to be caused by external obstacles to participation in science; thus, it was thought, removing those obstacles would result in equal numbers of women and men pursing science careers (Allegrini, 2015). The basic assumption in this perspective is that women and men are equal, and thus equally capable of contributing to scientific development. Removing the external barriers to women’s participation in science would thus enable women to pursue science careers to the same extent as men (Sinnes & Løken, 2014). Indeed, the numbers of women pursuing degrees in science have increased since the 1970s, as increasing awareness of potentially discriminatory practices has gradually removed social and political barriers to their participation. In other words, the quantitative problem has been somewhat alleviated; however, a qualitative gender gap in the sciences persists today that cannot be explained in this way (Allegrini, 2015).
The qualitative gender gap consists of pronounced gender imbalances in STEM studies and later careers (Allegrini, 2015). In other words, few STEM study programmes have equal numbers of women and men; most have large majorities of either women or men. This phenomenon has been explained by essentialism: The idea that by nature or nurture, girls have developed particular ‘feminine’ skills and characteristics that preclude them from wanting to engage in sciences such as physics or computer science (Sinnes & Løken, 2014). The status of STEM itself is not questioned in this perspective (Allegrini, 2015; Sinnes, 2006); instead, initiatives to recruit more women to the male-dominated STEM disciplines have focused on changing girls’ dispositions and perceptions in order that they might choose science (Phipps, 2007). Thus, girls are seen as being ‘deficient’ with respect to science and therefore in need of change (Brotman & Moore, 2008).
The discourses described in the preceding have dominated discussions of women’s underrepresentation in science. The problem with these discourses is that they situate science as gender-neutral. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not gender-neutral practices. Rather, STEM can be understood as a set of culturally and historically situated human practices of knowledge and thought (Allegrini, 2015); as such, ‘scientific knowledge, like other forms of knowledge, is gendered. Science cannot produce culture-free, gender-neutral knowledge’ (Brickhouse, 2001 p. 283). In fact, much of STEM is constructed in terms of the rational, intellectual, and independent; characteristics that are often symbolically connected with masculinity (Due, 2014; Faulkner, 2000; Phipps, 2007). This means that for individuals (boys or girls) who do not identify with such characteristics, a position within STEM is not available to them on the same terms as for individuals who do identify with such characteristics (Due, 2014). This may force those individuals to either reject STEM completely or face ‘gender inauthenticity1’ if they choose to pursue STEM nonetheless (Faulkner, 2000).
It follows from this discussion that efforts to attract more girls to science by reaching an equal balance between the biological sexes is not a viable solution:
It should make us suspicious of attempts to produce a more ‘balanced’ science simply by increasing the number of women in it (Gilbert & Calvert, 2003 p. 875).
Indeed, a larger percentage of women in science does not necessarily change the way the STEM knowledge-structure is gendered (Sinnes, 2006). In the following sections, we shall discuss in more detail the gendering of science
The conflation of gender with biological sex
The assumption that girls and boys belong to distinct, internally homogeneous groups based on their biological sex ‘creates a stereotype of girls and boys that fits no one in particular’ (Brickhouse, Lowery, & Schultz, 2000, p. 442). Accordingly, the assumption that sex equals gender is increasingly being challenged (Butler, 1993; Gilbert & Calvert, 2003; Henwood, 1998; Phipps, 2007; Rennie, 1998). Rather than the simple translation of biological difference, gender should be approached as a complex category that individuals make themselves recognizable through and perform in various ways (Allegrini, 2015; Due, 2014; Sinnes & Løken, 2014). Gender is thus not only culturally embedded, but also performed by the individual. Accordingly, gender should be studied as something individuals do rather than something they possess. Individuals adapt to the cultural contexts they participate in, and therefore they do not position themselves in the same way across different arenas. An example of the performance of gender is given by Søndergaard (1996) who describes how some female students downplay their femininity by dressing in neutral clothing in order to emphasise their competence within the ‘hard’, masculine-gendered topics of their study programme. The female students are thus performing a more masculine gender to adapt to the study context.
In summary, to change youths’ access to science in a manner that transcends the ways they perform gender, we must therefore understand how the STEM cultures include specific ways of doing gender while excluding others (cf. Danielsson, 2011; Hasse, 2008). This entails not only regarding male-dominated sciences and the girls and women within them, but also regarding more feminised sciences and the boys and men in them (Allegrini, 2015).
Approach to gender in Hypatia
Hypatia specifically targets gender inclusion at several levels: the institutional level, the interactional level, and the individual level.
Societal Level – Gender identity is shaped and influenced by the culture and society which institutions, educators, and learners are immersed in. These conditions are difficult or even impossible for educators to change, but by being aware of them, we may help offset or counteract their effects.
Institutional Level – Institutions routinely embed gender meanings in their ideologies, the distribution of resources, and the way they organise their practices (Risman & Davis, 2013). Being aware of the potential gendering of this and making that gendering explicit can help educators counteract or circumvent them.
Interactional Level – It is important to have considered the ways in which the interactions between the participants may inadvertently create and reproduce inequality.
Individual Level – When girls and boys encounter science education activities, they already have well-established gender identities. To avoid feeding into the sense that the science activities they encounter are for certain kinds of learners and not for others, it is important to avoid building essentialist presumptions into the activities.