Lost in darkness and distance

Why girls don't want to be scientists - and how the classroom might fix it

Julie Darbyshire 5 July 2009

Shadowy: if women can't picture themselves in labs, how can anyone else?

That audiences continue to be 'surprised' when the scientist turns out to be female indicates that society is not yet at a stage where men and women can enjoy true equal status in the scientific field

The Western cultural image of the scientist is one that has been created, imitated and perpetuated to nurture into existence a powerful scientific myth. It is a quest for truth, a corruption and abuse of power gained through unauthorised knowledge that has at its heart the issue of human identity and control. It is the legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Darbyshire, 2007).

Frankenstein was a development in the literary tradition of men seeking perfection. From ancient Greece, Socrates and Daedalus can be found “seeking, using and disseminating knowledge that was the rightful domain of the Gods (Rohn, 2007). Faust too, since the sixteenth century, has been persistently re-invented and destroyed by his desire for ultimate knowledge (Toumey, 1992). This fictional trope is so embedded within Western culture (Weingart & Pansegrau, 2003) that up to 90% of primary school children will draw what has been termed the “persistent and perfidious avatar” (Rohn, 2007): male, working alone on clandestine research with the potential to lose control, it has permeated social and cultural understanding to its core as the epitome of the archetypal ‘mad’ scientist (Haynes, 1994). In modern society, where social inclusivity is promoted and encouraged, this distorted populist view of science needs to be addressed if students are to be encouraged to continue their science education beyond the compulsory.

Despite the fact that women now outnumber men on graduate courses, there continues to be a gender divide at higher academic levels with only 23% of women reaching the rank of professor (Flicker, 2003). It is particularly acknowledged that women are “underrepresented” in the professional scientific, engineering and technological communities and it has been suggested that they are alienated from an early age as a direct result of recurrent negative imagery offered by the media (Steinke et al, 2007). Dominant academic opinion is that the public perception of science conflicts with the conventional feminine rôle in society (Steinke et al., 2007). Despite efforts to the contrary (Brickhouse, 2001) gender stereotyping remains prevalent in modern society (Steinke et al., 2007) and even within science there is an observable gender bias as girls demonstrate a preference for biology over chemistry or physics (Fensham, 1998; Brickhouse, Lowery, & Schultz, 2000).

In 1957 Mead and Metraux reported the inclination of school children to refer to a masculine persona when asked to describe a scientist. It was also noticed that they imagined poor social qualities, insularity and solitary natures, focussed solely, even obsessively, on their work (Steinke et al., 2007). It is hard not to draw comparisons with the literary Dr. Frankenstein. The formalised ‘Draw A Scientist Test’ (DAST) was introduced in the 1980s and several studies found the majority of children persistently produced stereotypes and that women were not commonly depicted. Their conclusion is two-fold; when presented with the DAST, girls are more likely than boys to draw a female figure (although overall they still tend to draw men) but this then fails to materialise in reality as their “science self-construct” is not allowed to develop, leaving them unable to visualise themselves with scientific careers. Interestingly opinions do not seem to change with age, even when undergraduate scientists were included in the cohort, and in some studies the stereotyping becomes more ingrained with age (Steinke et al., 2007). In other words, despite voluntarily continuing in science education, girls persistently do not recognise their scientific identities and continue to reject the “psychological archetype” (Jung, 1963) of a scientist from their own self-construct.

What (Steinke et al., (2007) term ‘gender schemas’ are initiated at an early age and confirmed over time by social reinforcement. Whilst some degree of stereotyping is inevitable and even essential to allow children to consider and generate their own gender identities, research indicates that girls may start to exclude themselves from certain careers as young as four or five years of age. We know from the DAST studies that this includes science. As suggested earlier, the populist view of scientists is flawed and seems complicit in perpetuating a mythic legacy (Darbyshire, 2007). Research on this “stereotype threat” (Smith, Sansone & White, 2007) suggests predetermined gender ideals can not only stifle and restrict girls’ career ambitions, but also their own self-esteem (Liben, Bigler & Krogh, 2001) and belief in their own efficacy (Bandura et al. , 2001).

When questioned, students admit they are influenced by media representations (Buldu, 2006), and it is noticeable from the Steinke research that those who did not reference media sources produced a less stereotypical figure. Much of the research looking at gender representation in the media agrees that women are not primarily focussed on career development (Signorelli, 1997) and that science is predominantly masculine (Lee, 1998). It is therefore unsurprising that when science is characterised in popular culture it adheres to what the public expect to see (Weingart et al., 2003; Brier, 2006). Alien to those outside the discipline, the collaborative nature (Ivanisevic & Sapunar, 2006) and strict controls (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2002; The Science Media Centre, 2004) of scientific methodology remains largely hidden as the realities of science are eschewed in favour of a good plot (Carter, 2006).

Eva Flicker has reviewed the changing cinematic image of the female scientist across the mid twentieth century (Flicker, 2003). Analysing films in relation to their contemporary culture she concentrates on social significance and ideological content. According to her research, in contrast to the single male scientist stereotype who has a clear linear literary heritage, women scientist clichés are more diverse and can appear variously as ‘the old maid’, ‘the male woman’, ‘the naïve expert’, ‘the evil plotter’, ‘the daughter/assistant’ or ‘the lonely heroine’. It is noticeable that in most of these characterisations the positive aspects of femininity are compromised and where she is permitted to retain her feminine characteristics, her scientific credibility is limited. Her scientific talents are clearly at odds with her capabilities as a social creature, and this discrepancy between the traditionally accepted view of the female societal rôle and the woman scientist to some extent mirrors the conflict between science and society (Flicker, 2003). ‘The lonely heroine’ is perhaps the only figure to claim any basis in reality but even here, she operates in a very masculine environment and, in the example offered (Contact, 1997), she remains dependent on male support to authenticate and endorse her scientific achievements. Denied a full identity by the society in which they try to function, it would seem that women scientists are seen to mature with varying degrees of dysfunctional femininity and social maladjustments.

Society defines its own values based on preconceived expectations (Flicker, 2003) and cultural acceptance is manipulated to current social trends (Brickhouse, 2001). If it can be said that: “images, clichés and metaphors […in fiction…] are a reflection of the popular culture” (Weingart et al., 2003), then continued significance afforded to these images, clichés and metaphors reinforces cultural thinking and, over time, is likely to re-present to society a distorted reflection (Darbyshire, 2007). It has been said that “theology is inevitably a child of its age…it is tied to the world view of the time, the issues which are uppermost in the minds of people and the historical events which confront us (Rose & Rose, 1970). It is inevitable that literature and popular culture will betray the issues of its day but there appears to be evidence that it continues to resonate into the future (Darbyshire, 2007). It is this ‘clinging to the past’ that encourages persistent references to a scientist who is always male and always lacking the skills that would enable him to be a full, successful member of society.

Flicker’s conclusions indicate there is hope of change as films move away from the traditional lone male protagonist in recognition of a more realistic view of the scientist, both male and female (Rohn, 2006; Brier, 2006). Current evaluations of science assume degrees of uncertainty and allow for interpretation and context. This paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) presents science more as a way of looking at the world than as a means to explain it and aims to present science as an integral part of society rather than as an external entity (Lambert & Rose, 1996). By the 1990s women in films are allowed to be intelligent and work alongside men without relinquishing their inherent femininity. That they still require male validation and approval to achieve success however, and that audiences continue to be “surprised” when the scientist turns out to be female (Flicker, 2003), would indicate that society is not yet at a stage where men and women can enjoy true equal status in the scientific field.

It has been suggested that it is predominantly those girls who conform to expected gender rôles who are offered the opportunity to study science at a higher level, regardless of their interest in the subject (Brickhouse et al., 2000). They conclude that although girls are now “as likely” to study higher-level science classes (AAUW, 1998), perhaps it is the wrong girls. By implying that those girls who “violate gender norms” might be better suited to the male oriented science environment than their quieter more feminine counterparts, Brickhouse appear to reinforce the conviction that for women to succeed in science (rather than school science), they have to be less like girls and more like men. The world of science it would seem, although willing to admit the female sex, is still not ready to accept femininity.

The interface between science and the public is changing as science and scientists become more inclusive within society and, as the public engage with and direct scientific policy, it is hoped that the distance between the scientist and the public will be eroded along with the inherent gendered ideologies. Girls need no longer be “lost in darkness and distance” (Shelley, 1818) but welcomed into the new enlightened society of twenty-first century science. After all, “it is not being right or wrong that makes a scientist. It is respect for proof and freedom from prejudice.” (Browne, 1643). The gap between scientists and the public can be bridged, but only if both sides acknowledge the limitations (Miller, 2000).

Scientific awareness is developed through social interaction as well as in the classroom (Brook et al., 1989) and until the public is presented with both a viable and realistic vision of a modern scientist, and the means by which they can ascribe an identity or ‘self-construct’ to that image, it is unlikely that Haynes’ mad scientist will disappear. Dr Frankenstein has persisted in our psyche for almost two hundred years and despite progress in other areas (Brickhouse, 2001), alternatives remain scarce (Reiss, 2004).

Nancy Brickhouse commends work done so far to encourage girls to continue their science education and applauds the work of the early feminist critics who highlighted the patriarchal hierarchy throughout society. She claims it is largely through their oeuvre that constructivist teaching methodologies (Brown, 1997) have been adopted and the traditional teacher rôle of masculine authority and power has given way to a more supportive function in the classroom (Brickhouse, 2001). She suggests this has led to a diminution of the dichotomous world inhabited by men and a corresponding embrace of a new world where uncertainty and differences are more readily accepted. The creation of identity is a complex and multi-layered interpretation of the self both reflected against, and in conjunction with, society and culturally accepted conventions. The idea of the self (and therefore the ‘self-construct’) is thus not a fixed state but one in constant flux dependent upon the inconsistencies of surrounding social constraints.

It is the variety of approaches within the constructivist classroom that makes the methodology attractive to feminist theorists. Contrasting with the polarity of the masculine classroom, it would seem to be sensitive to a myriad of personalities, each with a fluctuating sense of self, coupled with an acceptance of a wider society that is itself variable and subject to inference and allusion. Through the theories of constructivist teachings, it is possible to see a means by which students can be instilled with the information to recognise a media interpretation for the stereotype that it is, and the skills to articulate their understanding of that stereotype within their own sense of self. The best rôle model for future scientists is likely therefore to be their science teacher who can provide them with the skills to critically evaluate the evidence presented. By encouraging students to question, it is possible to neutralise the negative effects of stereotyping (Irving and Berel, 2001) and encourage all students, not just girls, to reflect on the nature of society and how cultural expectations shape the world. By subjugating the mad scientist cliché, students, both male and female, will be empowered to generate their own science self-construct and to embrace the diversity within the self to understand the “functional appropriateness” (Hodson, 1998) of each personal complex (Jung, 1963). Perhaps in time this will foster a new societal acceptance for more realistic and more varied, if less easily parodied, image of the scientist.

Related information

This article is adapted from a longer piece submitted in 2008 as final coursework for The Open University's MSc in Science programme.


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