Girls behind boys in science – blame culture not genes – research says

Education systems have made major strides to close gender gaps in student performance but girls and boys remain deeply divided in career choices, which are being made much earlier than commonly thought, according to a new OECD report.

The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour and Confidence says that gender bias, conscious and unconscious, among parents, teachers and employers is partly responsible.

But if girls in UK under perform in science – blame our culture not their genes – according to research experts:

Professor Jonathan Osbourne, Professor of Science Education at Stanford University in California says:

“Systematic reviews of a large body of research, including my own, show that the only difference between boys and girls is their ability to spatially manipulate objects. This can be remediated by a short period of training. The shocking disparities in performance revealed in the OECD report must therefore be entirely cultural.

Given that it is less of a problem in other countries, UK science teachers and educators need to look hard again at the roots of this complex challenge, what other countries are doing which the UK is not, and do more to impress on girls that STEM subjects are a means of access to careers which are both engaging and well-rewarded.”

Michael J Reiss Professor of Science Education UCL Institute of Education:

“We are one of the countries with the biggest gender differences in the OECD PISA science results. Our 15 year-old girls are reported as doing 13% less well than our boys. Of the 67 countries that took the tests, this places us in the bottom five.

The findings are hard to believe and don’t agree with the annual GCSE results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the equivalent examinations in Scotland. However, if these findings are valid, they are deeply disturbing.

We know that students who do less well in science are less likely to continue with it and we know that students who take science degrees end up glad that they did and get well paid jobs.

So what might be going on? This is nothing to do with genetics. Across the 67 countries that took the tests, the average gender difference in science was only 1%. The explanation must be a cultural one.

Despite television presenters like Alice Roberts and the increasing prevalence of senior female scientists in the UK (Dame Athene Donald, Dame Julia Goodfellow, Dame Julia Higgins, Dame Julia King, to mention just four), what girls too often seem to be hearing is that science is not for them.”

Charles Tracy, Head of Education at the Institute of Physics:

“When looking at all of the evidence, girls are not underperforming in the sciences. They outperform boys at GCSE in all of the science options. This represents a much larger population of candidates – it is nearly all sixteen year olds rather than a sample.

However, given that there is a disparity between the relative performance of girls in each of the tests, we should certainly try to find out why. The PISA tests have a very different style to GCSEs. It may be that this different style has a bearing; or even the mere fact that the questions and their style are unfamiliar.

In summary, the headline that UK girls underperform in the sciences is an overstatement based on a relatively small sample. And the disparity between PISA and our own GCSEs bears further investigation.”

Professor Louise Archer, Department of Education and Professional Studies King’s College London said:

“Our study, involving surveys of over 18,000 school students aged 10-14, shows that gender gaps in science aspirations between boys and girls start early – even at primary school girls are less likely than boys to aspire to a science career, despite being more likely than boys to name science as their favourite subject.

Our findings show that schools, teachers families and societal stereotypes all play a part in creating these gendered patterns of aspiration.”

Note to journalists: the study Professor Archer refers to is the ASPIRES and ASPIRES2 projects: www.kcl.ac.uk/aspires/ (Science Aspirations and Career Choice age 10-14 and 14-19), @ASPIRES2science, of which Proessor Archer is director.

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