‘Gender atypical’ subject selection: Research

In Dame Athene Donald’s inaugural address as President of the British Science Association, delivered on 10 September 2015, she stated that “the problems of how we introduce gender stereotyping for our children start incredibly early“. She asks, if girls “have never had the opportunity to take things to pieces and build them up again; if they have always just played with dolls …. in a stereotypically female situation such as worrying about hair style or making tea, then how can they imagine themselves as engineers or chemists?” Dame Athene, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, says that she is “astonished by how many people tell me a girl they know has been told that maths isn’t for them, or that girls are no good at maths or even that they do maths like a boy”. She believes that even though girls’ exam results in maths and physics are as good if not better than boys, then all these negative messages “sink in subliminally” and they are discouraged from pursuing maths and science as careers.  Dame Athene’s comments are backed up by recent research in the area of stereotype threat, risk-taking and competition:

• Gandara and Silva (2015, pp. 7, 11) found that despite equal numbers of female and male high school students in Chile sitting the biology, chemistry and physics pre-admission tests for entry into science-based university degrees, and despite female students achieving a higher Grade Point Average (GPA) at high school than male students, on average males outperformed female students in the three science admission tests, even after controlling for socioeconomic status (SES) and school type. They also found, however, that girls attending single-sex schools in Chile were more likely to sit the chemistry and physics tests than girls from co-educational schools (pp. 7-8) and that they achieved higher scores on all three tests (biology, chemistry and physics) (p. 11).

• A 2015 report by the Institute of Physics (UK) has found that co-educational schools need to do more to tackle sexist banter and attitudes that discourage girls from pursuing careers in science. The Opening Doors report found that many of the schools were “inadvertently reinforcing the notion that certain subjects were harder than others” and that girls “lack ability” and “innate talent” in certain subjects, and this was “particularly true for girls contemplating mathematics and the physical sciences”. In addition, timetabling constraints in many schools reinforced gender stereotypes through offering subjects in blocks that send “a strong message about the types of courses that are taken by boys and girls”.

• In 2013 the Institute of Physics’ Closing Doors report examined existing gender imbalances in six A-level subjects which result in girls being more likely to take English, biology and psychology, and boys being more likely to take mathematics, physics and economics. The report found that 81% of government co-educational schools were either “maintaining or exacerbating the already poor gender bias of progression into these subjects”. One of the main findings of the report, however, was that “single-sex schools are significantly better than co-educational schools at countering gender imbalances in progression to these six subjects”.

• In their study of female engineering students at a Sydney university, Tully and Jacobs concluded that: ” Single gender classes may provide a learning environment where the female voice is not marginalised. The personal attributes of the teachers, most notably their encouragement, care and availability, appeared to motivate these female students from single gender schools to excel” (2010, p. 464; also see, Tully & Jacobs, 2009).

• Alice Sullivan, a British academic, found that: “Girls at single-sex schools were less likely to see themselves as ‘below average’ in maths and science”. She also noted that single-sex schooling “generally promoted a gender-atypical self-concept” (2009, p. 281). To view a video of Dr Sullivan discussing academic and life outcomes for students attending single-sex and co-educational schools, including the particular benefits for girls in attending a single-sex school, click here

• More recently, Sullivan, Joshi and Leonard (2010, p. 25) found that “single-sex schools were associated with attainment in gender atypical subject areas for both boys and girls… [and] women who had attended single-sex schools were more likely than coeducated women to gain their highest qualification by age 33 in a male-dominated field”. This “confirms the view that single sex environments can actually reduce the tendency of students to behave according to gender-typical stereotypes or norms” (p. 26). (Also see, Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2008).

• “A single-sex environment may make it less likely that students will perceive particular academic subjects as being ‘for’ a particular sex. While in a coeducational school, a girl taking physics, for example, would have found herself in a minority in the class, this would not apply in a single-sex environment” (Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2010, p. 27; also see, Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2008).

Schneeweis and Zweimüller (2012) showed that Austrian girls studying in classes with a higher proportion of girls were more likely to choose to study in a technical (vocational) school at age 14. They concluded that “in more female environments, girls are less restrained by gender stereotypes and are more likely to consider traditional male school types and careers” (p. 490).

• A study of the status of women in science in Australia noted that “girls perform better in science in single-sex schools” (Bell et al., 2009, p. 36).

• A study of 45,000 students who took the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination in 1997 found that girls outperformed boys in most subjects whether at single-sex or co-educational schools, however girls performed best in single-sex schools, particularly in the science stream but also in the arts stream (Wong, Lam & Ho, 2002, pp. 827, 837, 838 & 840).