A Brief History of Thinking about Girls and Science

In 2013 girls swept the Google science fair. Their projects were the results of hundreds of hours of work, of creativity, of failures and persistence, and of passion. Even my cynical heart melts and I have to fight tearing up every time I see the picture of them holding their Lego trophies. The news of their victory went around the world. Millions shared their photos and stories online. Teachers showed it to students, parents showed it to sons and daughters. Advocates used it to illustrate how far girls have come. Some trolls no doubt used in their attempts to show that boys are the real victims of all this affirmative action and girls positivity. It meant a lot of different things to a lot of people. But it was not the first time a group of girls demolished their male peers in test of scientific prowess. Not by a long shot.

Image Credit: P. Kim

Image Credit: P. Kim

1845 – Boston 

There were no movie theaters, nor were there scantron sheets for scoring tests. A popular way to demonstrate student knowledge was to hold public examinations. Literally, people would put on their nice clothes and head to the local, school, church, community hall, to watch a bunch of secondary students be grilled by teachers and experts in their relative fields.

 On this night, the hall was packed. Typically, these examinations were dominated by males and focused on the classics and maybe some mathematics. This year, the examinations would also feature natural philosophy and participants would be from schools serving boys and girls (most secondary schooling at this point was private, gender segregated and paid for by parents). Public examinations were how schools showed parents and other stakeholders the value of the education provided. Preparation for the examinations was rigorous and noted for creating a sense of terror in students.

 I imagine people packed in, wearing their scratchy Sunday clothes with stiff collars (and no fabric softener). They there proceeded to watch girls demolish the boys, answering twice as many questions correctly with the girls from the best single-education girls school Bowdoin, outperforming the males of the best boys school, Brimmer, across the board, not just in science education. This of course, did not stop district officials from rating the boys school as the best overall Boston secondary school.

 Of course, in reality, there was no cinema-style show down. Boys and girls, while examined publicly, were examined at their own schools, likely on different days. Girls superior performance in natural philosophy (typically focused in the areas of geography – which had a much broader scope than we think of today -  and astronomy) were not all that surprising to people of the time. That is because, in the early days of the United States, natural philosophy was considered a logical fit for the fairer sex, while males were considered to be superior in the classics (languages and literature). 

Ladies were all up in the natural philosophy house.

Ladies were all up in the natural philosophy house.

 In her excellent research monograph, The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective, Kim Tolley presents mountains of evidence in the form of school records, advertisements, period essays, and personal diaries about the state of girls secondary education in 19thcentury America and beyond. What she finds is that for much of American history, girls schools were more likely to teach natural philosophy (what we now call the sciences) than boys schools. Natural philosophy was believed to be in alignment with girls destinies to be wives and mothers. Women employed as tutors and governesses were expected to be knowledgeable about geography, geology, and surveying. Girls (well, wealthy girls) and their mentors were encouraged to explore outdoors, observe, and experiment with the natural world. 

 It’s only with the rise of industrialization, and the increased realization that the future of the nation lay in innovation, that the “natural” order in which women studied science and men were masters of the classics began to turn on its head. In the post-civil war era a shift in thinking about science began that would eventually lead to the professionalization, and masculinization, of the sciences in America (and around much of the world). 

 Renaissance and enlightenment science was the realm of the well-heeled who didn’t need to work for a living (though working classes had been innovating from the dawn of time – they just didn’t get credit for their creations). Just look at the list. Newton, Darwin, Boyle, Cavendish. All independently wealthy and able to fund their own research. Science was not considered a vocation (if it had been, not so many gentleman would have tried their hand at it). In fact science was often presented as parlor tricks and entertainment. The most famous science magician in history being American’s own Ben Franklin [1]. And while gentleman (and women) scientists introduced many innovations and discoveries, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution began that the economic and social potential of science as a career path was realized. 

 Industrialization produced incredible wealth through mass manufacturing, improvements in transportation, and communication, and in public health. Where there’s money to be made, there’s power to be had. In patriarchal society, where there’s power to be had, you better bet that men are going to be there to take it. So it was that increasingly, science began to be thought of as a realm of men and not women. Women were increasingly pushed out of the sciences, though in truth, they never really left, continuing to innovate by discovering pulsarspioneering theory behind nuclear fissionmaking massive strides in public health, and discovering that genetics determine sex. They just didn’t get the accolades or credit.

 As educational priorities shifted and women were shunted away from the sciences, gaps in performance in these areas grew. For some time, this was not considered anything to be concerned about. It was just a natural upshot of women’s biological inferiority at mathematical and scientific subjects. In the 60s and 70s as the space race was going full steam and more and more women entered the workforce, educators, policy makers, and feminists were starting to notice these gendered gaps in STEM fields and looking for ways to fix the problem. A problem society had created be shunting women to the margins of math and science. Thus began the modern debate over gender disparities in STEM and a series of efforts to correct the problem.

 I like to think of the attempts to address gender disparities in terms of 4 waves [2,3]– 

  1.             Fix the Girls

  2.             Fix the Curriculum and Teachers

  3.             Fix the Culture

  4.             Identities for Science

Early attempts at narrowing gaps focused on finding and remediating deficiencies in girls, providing extra attention to teach girls STEM disciplines and bringing up test scores. AKA, lets fix those girls!It didn’t take long before researchers [4] began to realize, that gaps were not due to deficiencies in girls, but rather with curriculum and teaching. Text books were jam-packed with gendered examples (boys as doctors, girls as nurses), sports analogies for processes in the natural world, and heavily gender biased teaching. Moves were made to make curriculum more gender inclusive and relatable. Only so much could be done with text books though. Science and mathematics at the secondary level were overwhelmingly taught by men, and girls were largely overlooked and provided with low expectations in the science and mathematics classrooms. Oh wait, that’s still going on today.Yay!

In the 80s and 90s, researchers and policy makers focused on revising curriculum and looking at ways to shift pedagogy to be more female inclusive. It worked, to point. Girls did start improving on standardized tests, and outstripped boys in grades and number of science courses taken. Some achievement gaps do remain. Even well into the 21stcentury girls are less likely to take physics, engineering, or computer science courses, and teachers in most science subjects remain overwhelmingly male. Strides had been made, but girls still weren’t choosing science.

In the 90s feminist academics and women in STEM began pointing to the culture of science for evidence as to why girls were not choosing science. Despite closing achievement gaps, STEM remained an unattractive option for girls. Stereotypes about science and women’s and girls real experiences with STEM education and careers painted a rather unflattering view of life as a STEM professional. Researchers pointed to the masculine construction of the idea of science that permeates culture (competitive, isolated, requiring effortless brilliance), the lack of relatable mentors, and sexual harassment in the classroom and workplace. It’s hard to say much has changed on this front, even as recently as 2016, sexual harassment scandalshave plagued academic disciplines in science. Though the fact that there are scandals and reporting on them is a sign that women’s complaints are being heard.

While researchers, educators, policy makers, and STEM professionals continue to address STEM curriculum, teaching, and culture, a new wave of researchers are looking at STEM identities as both an explanation for the continued gender gap and a possible solution. Research has found a substantial “thinkability” gap around most STEM careers for girls and women [5]. Most girls simply aren’t thinking about careers in STEM, and if they do, the option doesn’t seem very appealing. The image of science as masculine has been carefully cultivated by our society for over 100 years. Improving test scores isn’t going to change such core conceptions of who does and doesn’t belong with a few new text books and a photo of a couple of girls holding Lego trophies.

Improving the quality of STEM education has been a priority for educators, researchers, and policy makers for years. Most states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (or similar standards) with the intent of making STEM curriculum more modern and inquiry-based. There is a huge body of research behind the standards and how inquiry-based learning provides students with a better grasp of key STEM concepts. What is missing from these standards is guidance on how to teach the “soft” side of STEM. No, I don’t me soft like girls, “oh, girls are soft,” I mean soft like social. Even the best curriculum can’t prevent gendered bias from playing out in the classroom. Educators need clear guidance with practical training on how to make the STEM classroom more inclusive and responsive. This is one place where the world of formal education can learn from informal programs like SPICE, where motivational theories have been operationalized and put in to practice for years with positive, measurable results.


 [1] OK, so Franklin wasn’t really a gentleman scientists, but rather a Yankee entrepreneur, but still. He was a great one for parlor tricks.

 [2] Brotman, J. S. and F. M. Moore (2008). "Girls and science: A review of four themes in the science education literature." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45(9): 971-1002.

[3] Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). "Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?" Gender and Education 17(4): 369-386.

[4] Lets be honest, maleresearcher began to realize this. Women already knew they were as smart as men.

[5] Archer, L., et al. (2012). "“Balancing acts”: Elementary school girls’ negotiations of femininity, achievement, and science." Science Education 80(1): 967-989.