What gendered narratives are we teaching our kids?
VILLUM FONDEN are working to spark children and young people’s curiosity in science, making it relevant and exciting for both boys and girls. Research show that boys and girls have equal interest and skill in STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – up until the age of 11-13, but after this age, girls lose interest.
We set out to explore the lived experience of girls and conducted extensive ethnographic research in primary schools around Denmark. We observed classroom teaching and interviewed pupils, teachers, and parents to gain an understanding of how individual, social and cultural dynamics are influencing how girls and boys are perceived, acknowledged and expected to behave within STEM subjects.
Through thorough cultural analysis, we identified how gender stereotyped narratives and cultural barriers cause girls to lose interest in STEM subjects in comparison to boys. Based on this, we developed a set of anthropological recommendations for VILLUM FONDEN on how they might shed light on gender biases and help change the existing narrative.
Why gender stereotyped narratives cause girls to lose interest in STEM subjects to a larger extent than boys
"We want to ensure that both girls and boys see science as important topic to pursue which is relevant in their everyday lives. We initiated the collaboration with IS IT A BIRD to understand what happens within science teaching that makes the girls lose interest. And what can we – as a fund – can do about it."
Agi Csonka, Head of Program, Children, Youth and Science
In spite of recent political focus, the number of men and women who graduate from STEM educations is dramatically disproportionate. Research shows that this can be traced back to primary school. So, what happens in the classroom?
VILLUM FONDEN believes that by making STEM subjects relevant for boys and girl both in and outside of school, they will ultimately be viewed as an interesting career path or profession for the future. They needed to understand in depth why girls in particular lose interest in STEM subjects and identify the efforts needed to help retain their interest in order to improve gender diversity and deliver on their overall vision of nurturing children’s interest in science and technology. To uncover these truths, we went back to school to explore how social, cultural, and structural dynamics affect girls’ perception of science and technology.
"Great teamwork is when the students stay focused on the task at hand: A girl, who is a little nervous about turning on a bunsen burner, will work better with a boy, who is not afraid of fire"
We conducted extensive ethnographic research at Danish primary schools in order to gain a deep understanding of the lived experience of girls in seventh and eighth grade.
We sat in on math, biology, and physics lessons in order to observe the interactions between teacher and pupils – and amongst the pupils themselves. This was supplemented with in-depth interviews with friendship groups, teachers, and parents to identify the gender stereotypes and narratives at play. Furthermore, we interviewed experts within gender studies and semiotics to gain a holistic perspective on the challenges at hand.
This research was turned into anthropological insights about perceptions of science and technology – and the competences needed to excel – from the perspective of girls and their teachers. We further provided insights into the social, cultural, and structural dynamics within the classroom, to identify why teachers have a hard time acknowledging girls interest in science and technology.
"Most girls ask a lot of questions about the task before they begin – whilst most boys ask questions afterwards, as they have the courage necessary to just get started"
This collaboration between IS IT A BIRD and VILLUM FONDEN has produced important insights for how we might perceive and teach STEM subjects in a gender inclusive way, and ultimately create systemic and lasting change.
We provided a cultural contextualisation as to why many young girls lose interest in science and technology in the last years of primary school – namely that feminine values and competencies have largely been marginalised in the classrooms setting. Moreover, there are discrepancies in how teachers gauge interest amongst pupils and how girls display curiosity towards STEM subjects. This combination of stereotyped narratives and misinterpretation of interest ultimately has had an effect on how girls perceive their own skills with STEM subjects and their motivation to continue.
IS IT A BIRD developed anthropological recommendations to challenge teachers' implicit expectations towards boys and girls, as well as narratives about gender, science, and technology. We also proposed different didactic tools to create a more gender-inclusive teaching. The research supports VILLUM FONDEN in their overall strategic direction and future funding and can be read here (Danish only).