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25th October 2015

Girls scared away from science by gender stereotyping

A new report by the Institute of Physics suggests schools should do more to tackle ‘sexist banter’ that can discourage girls from pursuing careers in science

The Opening Doors project focuses on inadvertent gender bias shown by students and sometimes teachers throughout 10 schools based in the South of England. The guide urges schools to prioritise gender bias as well as more recognised racism and homophobia.

It was noted that although all schools involved had policies on tackling derogatory language surrounding these issues, complaints involving sexist behaviour were treated less seriously.

This ‘harmless banter’ was shown to considerably affect the confidence of students who despite efforts from the school “found it difficult to break out of their roles, and many girls, in particular, passively accepted the situation.” Cases in which a teacher was thought to have shown gender bias were not perceived to be sexist. However, such behaviour was seen by female students as reinforcing gender prejudices.

An Improving Gender Balance survey included in the guide collected opinions on gender from 921 female students across Years 9 to 11. 45.6 per cent of these students thought that “girls are often steered towards humanities,” and 64 per cent said they were “aware of at least two examples of gender issues in choosing careers.”

The Telegraph reported in February this year that only 13 per cent of science, technology, engineering and maths workers are women.”

A similar guide published by Institute of Physics in 2012 found that girls attending private, single-sex schools were “four times more likely to choose physics than their contemporaries in mixed, state-funded schools.”

The report, made this year, attributed this substantial difference to a school’s environment. It claims that 81% of schools are not doing enough to ensure female students progress into subjects such as mathematics or the sciences at a higher level.

Dame Mary Archer, the chair of London’s Science Museum, spoke on the subject science in single-sex schools earlier this year. She said that “going to a single-sex school is quite a traditional route for women my age because nobody said ‘you shouldn’t do that, dear’—not until it is too late anyway.”

Speaking further on the subject she went on to speak about self-confidence in young girls and said that, unfortunately, “there’s a sense that ‘I can’t be as womanly as a scientist as I could be as a beautician or a journalist.'”

The University of Manchester’s student population is 53 per cent female and 47 per cent male. This balance is not seen throughout the university, with the School of Physics and Astronomy estimated to have only a 20 per cent intake of female students.

Physical Education (PE) was another focus, as it was a common grievance with female students. Schools with strong PE departments had a range of sports available to both genders through mixed sessions showed less evidence of gender bias. However, it was noted that within schools lacking in a range of activities “girls resented being prevented from taking certain sports considered unsuitable for them.”

On the matter of gender stereotyping in schools, the government has said that “no woman should feel that their gender is a barrier to their success.”

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