Gender, subject choice and all that

Several friends sent me this link to invite me to share their outrage – and understandably, when the headline is “Gender equality in STEM would deny human nature”.

Naturally, my first reaction as a graduate in S and M (er… maybe that doesn’t read quite right… “Science and Mathematics”, is what I mean!) and an enthusiast for T and E is to feel affronted – is it implying I’m either in the wrong subject areas for my natural preferences or else a most strange and unnatural female? (well, I’d maybe buy the latter).

After actually reading the article, I calmed down just a little. Yes, I agree we should let people study what they are interested in – I always have thought that. Yes, education policies should be based on evidence not some vague hunch. But then I started getting annoyed again… Yes, we should look at the evidence – and that evidence shows that you get a very different distribution across the subject choices at A-level and GCSE in single-sex schools to that seen in mixed schools. So how on earth could anyone think that social pressures aren’t important here? Anecdotal it may be, but I’ve lost count of the number of accounts I’ve heard in mixed schools of lads who wanted to do cookery or English but hated the prospect of name-calling, and of girls who felt intimidated by the prospect of joining an almost all-male class in Resistant Materials. It is interesting to note that the criticism of those “atypical” girls and boys rarely seems to come from the other gender, but most often from their own – presumably for undermining the majority concept of what it means to be a boy or a girl, which is presumably seen as very important to establish in a mixed environment.

However, I also get a bit irritated by some of the ideas for making STEM subjects more attractive to girls. I guess I can see the advantage of female role models  to show girls that you don’t have to be some sort of weirdo to go into such areas, and to share their experiences of studying or working in these fields. Though I do find it worrying that the cultural stereotypes are such that these role models will need to be quite orthodoxly “feminine” to achieve their aim – we should also be showing girls it’s OK not to want to be a “girly girl” anyway, whatever your study preferences (and, of course, to be one if you wish).  I also don’t really like the idea that girls can only be inspired by women, and boys by men – most of my heroes as a child were men (well, I liked maths and science, and historically most mathematicians and scientists were male) but I didn’t feel that stopped me aspiring to emulate them, just because of the gender difference. If we are not careful, we can end up inadvertently promoting the very gender divide we are condemning – as with a certain professor in a university I won’t name, who thought it was better to get aspiring female PhD candidates to talk to other female students rather than ones researching in their own area.

The other thing that annoys me is the push in some circles to make STEM subjects more “girly” in content – more carey-sharey lovey-dovey society-focused rather than about  abstract ideas  and our wonderfully exciting universe at its largest and smallest levels. Firstly there is the inherent contradiction – we are saying at once that there is not an inherent gender divide in preferences/aptitudes when seeking equal numbers in STEM subjects, but then that there is by characterising girls as liking applications and softer-edged concepts rather than hard-line theory and exact answers.  Secondly, on a much more personal level – I really really don’t want STEM subjects at school spoilt. Some of us like the abstractness, the excitement of the ideas,  the need for precision and the thrill of working through a tough problem to get the right answer.  I’m very glad useful applications of these things exist, but they don’t get me going like the ideas – and they did so even less when I was at school. When I talk to kids wanting to study such subjects at university, most feel the same. I wouldn’t suggest introducing mathematical precision into English Literature, and I wouldn’t suggest that the study of History should be justified by practical applications – so let maths and science stand as intellectual disciplines in their own right, not inevitably having to justify themselves in this way.  It is – and should be seen as – fine for a girl to enjoy physics that is about black holes or quantum mechanics, not just “medical physics” and to relish the thrill of a beautiful proof in mathematics without looking for its use. The subjects are not the problem – social pressures are.























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