Photo of Judith Abrahami

By Judith Abrahami PhD, Hypatia International Advisory Board

The 11th biennial conference of the Gender and Education Association (GEA) that was held this year in June in London, was a great opportunity to find out whether satisfactory progress has been made in providing options for girls in education, and whether we need to continue developing projects and activities to in order to increase the girls’ engagement in traditionally male fields, like STEM. After all, projects like HYPATIA, like so many other EC funded educational projects, would be unnecessary if the society and the educational system were to reach a state of equal opportunities, equal encouragement and gender neutral career guidance.

The answer to that question is an inherent part of the theme of this year’s conference “generative feminism(s): working across/within/ through borders”. The statement of purpose clarifies that while new methodologies and interdisciplinary approaches are now employed to theorise and research gender, these developments owe an enormous debt to generations of feminist scholars. Notwithstanding the continuous research in this field, feminist scholarship still needs to insist on demonstrable impacts for greater equity in educational policy, practical pedagogies and within communities.

The dominant argument was that feminist perspectives are still valid, and appropriate.

Many of the presentations touched upon the issue of change and the extent of the impact of decades of feminist endeavors to ensure equal opportunities, and the influence of the research on gender and education in disseminating the accumulated knowledge. The dominant argument was that feminist perspectives are still valid, and appropriate. In retrospect, what the different waves and strands of feminisms had and have in common is an ethical stand concerning gender, a perception of women as generally at a disadvantage in gender relations, a perception of this gender inequality as wrong, and consequently a commitment  to changing things for the better.

An example of revisited research on a core issue of inequality and math was a Swiss presentation on the origins of the gender gap in math. The hidden curriculum in the primary schools was examined, and the gender biased evaluation of the fifth grade pupils caused by the acquired lack of confidence of the girls that affected their performance on the exams, are actually a depressing replication of findings of similar studies conducted since the 1970’s. The continuing insistence that the girls conform to school regulations, together with their ensuing internalization of the stereotypical threat that states that they are less skilled than males, are evidence of the intransigence permanency of gender bias in schools.  This in fact reflects an enduring gender bias in society.

In a paper about what a feminist mathematics teacher looks like, a researcher who studied teachers’ approaches in secondary schools concluded that no single practice yet exists that can eliminate the underachievement and disaffection of girls in math, although there is a general agreement that girls seek understanding. Another paper warned of the reliance on statistics to measure changes in the situation of girls in education, and argued that educational policies are designed to increase ratio or performances and gender equality is simplified as a numerical equality, thus failing to address the role of education in the perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles.

This interesting and wide-ranging conference combined the old and the new; the classical issues and the more innovative and updated discourse.  On the one hand, updated research that readdresses questions considered in past studies and acknowledges accumulated knowledge, and, more often than not, concludes that insufficient change has been made in the direction of gender equity in education and career planning. On the other hand, more updated concerns were discussed, including gender fluidity, diversity, neo liberal universities and online courses.

To conclude, no single answer was provided to the query how to engage girls in math and science and ensure their self-confidence. For the time being, HYPATIA and other projects and initiatives working on promoting gender equity and changing gendered attitudes to STEM have a great deal to accomplish.