Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.


November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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