It’s time to nip STEM sexism in the bud

The overhaul of STEM curricula is an opportunity to provide a more inclusive view of science and scientists, argues Alessandro Siani

Alessandro Siani is the Associate Head (Students) of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Portsmouth

Try this simple experiment to visually appreciate the difference between good intentions and reality when it comes to the STEM gender gap.

Open a new browser tab, go to Google Images, and try searching for “Scientist”.

If you’ve done it, right now you’re probably looking at a variety of lab coat-clad people of diverse gender and ethnicity, cheerfully holding test tubes and beakers or staring down a microscope.

Now go back to Google Images, and this time try searching for “Famous scientist”. Gone is the diversity – you’re now probably looking at a gallery of portraits depicting a vast majority (with the notable exception of Marie Curie) of white male scientists, particularly a German one with the iconic scruffy white hair and moustache.

Even Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their ground-breaking discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors”, are nowhere to be seen.

Big name boffins

If you don’t have time to repeat this experiment on other search engines, don’t worry – my students and I have done it for you.

In a study carried out at the University of Portsmouth we revealed that, across five major search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, AOL, Yandex), searching for “Scientist” yields quite gender-balanced results, with a men to women ratio of approximately 1:1 across all search engines except Yandex, where the ratio was about 2:1 in favour of men.

However, searching for “Famous scientist” on the same search engines showed a staggering female underrepresentation: the men to women ratio ranged from 5:1 (Google) to 50:1 (Yandex).

In other words, women are five to 50 times less likely to appear in an online image search for “Famous scientist” – think about what this means for a student doing research for a school science project!

But how can similar search phrases like “Scientist” and “Famous scientist” yield such different results? One reasonable explanation is that “Scientist” returns mainly stock photos depicting impersonators posing as scientists, reflecting the authors’ intentions to provide race- and gender-balanced representations of the profession.

On the other hand, “Famous scientist” returns mainly portraits of real (either living or past) scientists, reflecting the gender bias historically associated with scientific research. “Yes” – some argue at this point – “but we can’t change the past!” As true as that statement is, it should not discourage us from trying to improve what we CAN change – the future.

Changing our present

Are our educational system and media doing enough to overcome historical gender biases in science? To answer this question, we analysed the gender balance of the scientists named in secondary (GCSE) science specifications published by the three major exam boards in England, namely AQA, OCR, and Edexcel.

Shockingly, a grand total of only two women (Rosalind Franklin and Mary Leakey) were mentioned across all specifications, compared to over 40 men.

To get a better idea of female scientists’ representation in popular media, we measured gender balance in movie and TV shows using the IMDb database, and found that 33 out of 40 of the most popular science documentaries were narrated by a male narrator, and only five by a woman.

Likewise, for the 50 most popular movies and TV shows tagged with the keyword “Scientist” on IMDb, there were 88 men depicted on the poster, and only 38 women.

With female scientists being so drastically underrepresented in online sources, school curricula and popular media, would children internalise from a young age the pernicious and long-standing notion that “science is just for boys”?

To answer this question, we investigated secondary students’ awareness of scientific role models by providing them with 20 names of famous scientists (10 men, 10 women) and asking them whether they recognised those names. The survey indicated that the four most frequently identified scientists were all male, while the six least frequently identified were women.

Out of the 10 famous female scientists, none was recognised by more than half of the students, and eight were only identified by one in five students. These discouraging figures confirm the findings of one of our previous studies, where we asked students aged 14 to 18 to name an influential scientist, and only 12 per cent of the students (four per cent of boys, 21 per cent of girls) named a woman.

Role models play a key role in determining students’ academic engagement and career aspirations. It is therefore highly concerning that only a small percentage of school-age girls would choose a gender-matched scientist when asked to name an inspirational figure. When we surveyed high school students about their favourite subjects, 72 per cent of boys named at least one STEM subject, compared to only 54 per cent of girls.

Confidence is a preference

In a more recent study, we investigated students’ self-confidence and propensity towards a STEM career in an all-girls secondary school in the South of England. Our findings show that girls’ median self-confidence in maths and science drops by about 30 per cent between year 7 (the first year of high school) and year 11 (the last year of compulsory education).

The study also revealed a significant association between self-confidence and career propensity in science and maths.

While this finding is certainly not surprising, it reinforces the fact that students’ career intentions and university course decision-making process are strongly linked to their self-confidence in the subject. In turn, self-confidence and self-efficacy are heavily influenced by exposure to inspirational and relatable role models that students can identify with, fostering a feeling of inclusion and achievability.

At the moment, we (as educational institutions, government and wider society) are still simply not doing enough to provide that sense of belonging and inclusion to young girls in the STEM field.

The English National Curriculum still dates back to 2014 for Science and Maths GCSE, and therefore it does not reflect many of the social changes that have arisen over the last decade, nor does it encompass the increased focus on global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, antibiotic resistance and artificial intelligence.

The long-overdue overhaul of the STEM curricula is a golden opportunity to ensure that our educational system provides a more balanced and inclusive view of science and scientists, enthuses and empowers young learners by exposing them to relatable and inspirational role models.

Until we can achieve that, our universities and workplaces will keep missing out on an enormous intellectual and professional potential in the STEM field. The future Curie, Lovelace or Doudna are sitting in a classroom or working on their UCAS statements right now, and it is up to us to send them the message that they have what it takes to succeed in STEM, and to empower them to achieve their potential.

One response to “It’s time to nip STEM sexism in the bud

  1. Unfortunately we have a very long way to go with this, too many potential female scientists are turned away from the field by family inputs, often compounded by teachers (female teachers especially so when they’re competing to recruit for their GCSE courses that compete with Science’s in the same time table slots). The discussion in many science staff rooms in secondary schools (I was a governor with specific science dept responsibility) probably follows my experience, where the able and capable pupils are identified and extra effort is made to try and recruit them, and in the follow-up meeting at the start of year following the pupils choosing the great disappointment so many have gone for a non-science subject. The Science dept I was attached to was female led and dominated 4-2. Going back ~50 years when I was at school the girls only really wanted to ‘do’ science in the attractive male teacher’s classes, shunning the female teachers classes, perhaps some research into attitudes and sexually motivated decisions is needed too?

    That most of the female Scientists (real ones not the photo idealised ones) I work with tend to be very deep thinkers and present an unconscious image of being ‘boffins’, something many girls cannot, or will not, identify with, something University school taster days often confirms in their minds, another aspect to consider going forward.

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