Menus Subscribe Search

Making Science Girl-Friendly Pays Gender Dividends

• July 14, 2011 • 4:00 AM

A study in which the benefits of learning science were wrapped in issues traditionally associated with girls indeed generated more interest from the underrepresented sex.

If you want to interest girls in science, show how it will help them investigate stereotypically feminine concerns like caring for their skin and hair, says a just-published study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

After examining a wide array of science textbooks, University of Luxembourg educational researcher Sylvie Kerger concluded that most present real-world examples are “embedded in masculine contexts.” But wrapping scientific subjects — at least initially — around female-friendly topics could kindle interest in scientific fields under-populated by women, Kerger says. Studies have shown that interest counts more than ability toward choosing a major or a career.

While women now constitute a sizable majority of U.S. college students — they received more than 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2008 — females earned fewer than 35 percent of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics awarded that year, according to Linda J Sax, a professor of education at the UCLA.

Kerger gave 294 eighth- and ninth-grade boys and girls questionnaires asking them whether they would like to study biology, physics, information technology or statistics the following year. Instead of naming these subjects, the questionnaire presented each science through topics found in previous studies to be either male- or female-friendly. “How does a laser read a CD?” was a masculine way to ask about physics, while “how is a laser used in cosmetic surgery?” addressed stereotypical girls’ concerns.

The youngsters rated their interest on a scale from one (not interesting at all) to five (very interesting). Presenting these sciences in a feminine way increased girls’ interest in physics about a half-point, in information technology more than 0.75 of a point and in statistics more than a full point.

But the male-versus-female presentations didn’t affect girls’ interest in biology. (“Watch blood coagulate from a small wound,” appealed to them as much as “reflect on how skin tanning comes about in the summer.”)

“Girls are already very interested” in that science, even when presented in a male-friendly way, says Kerger.

Increasing the girl-friendly content had a predictable effect on boys’ interest. When researchers couched information technology as learning “how to order clothes over the Internet” rather than figuring out “how the inside of the computer is structured,” boys’ interest dampened in that science.

Faced with this zero-sum result, Kerger and her colleagues don’t argue for single-sex classes. This is a cross section, so while some girls aren’t interested in stereotypically feminine topics, they point out, some boys are. The reverse also holds true. So they recommend teachers offer a choice among several modules dealing with the same scientific concepts wrapped around various male- and female-friendly topics.

Should we worry that addressing girls’ stereotypical concerns, such as about their appearance, will validate and strengthen superficial interests?

Not really, said Kerger, because interests are already there. On the other hand, using any such initial interests to draw girls into science can reap dividends, because after activating initial interests – and the researchers acknowledge their work only showed how to cultivate initial interest in science, not how to sustain it — teachers can cultivate and maintain girls’ scientific bent by tried and true methods. They include promoting cooperative group learning, giving students challenging opportunities to gain competence, and always pointing out the meaningfulness and relevance of scientific learning.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Kathy Seal
Kathy Seal is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Carnegie Reporter. Co-author of two books — Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Holt, 2001) and Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus, 2008 ) — she speaks frequently at schools on motivating children to learn. She is now at work on a memoir.

More From Kathy Seal

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.