Overcoming gender myths in science

Boys are smarter than girls, scientists are nerds, and science is so hard that girls can’t cope with it —

These are among the gender myths the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) wants to demolish. This week it launched a major advocacy programme to attract more girls into science and related fields.

Men in sub-Saharan Africa still dominate science, technology, engineering and maths and this gender imbalance starts from the earliest schooling years, Assaf says in the publication it launched on Wednesday in Pretoria.

Aimed at policymakers in the sub-Saharan region, the booklet — Inquiry-Based Science Education: Increasing Participation of Girls in Science in sub-Saharan Africa — says governments must “increase the participation of girls in science and maths”, writes Professor Rosanne Diab, Assaf executive officer, in her foreword.

The publication is the product of a partnership between Assaf, the Network of African Science Academies, the Organisation of Women Scientists for the Developing World and the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology’s gender advisory board.

The booklet advocates a progressive teaching and learning methodology, called inquiry-based science education (IBSE), to draw girls to subject areas from which social prejudices and discriminatory classroom practices have traditionally excluded them.

Policy advice
Science academies have a vital role to play in pursuing this aim, Diab writes. “Given their role regarding the promotion of science education, and providing advice to their governments, academies in sub-Saharan Africa are well placed to promote IBSE.

“There is a need for academies on the African continent for work collaboratively in advising their governments on the importance and value of IBSE for girls.

“The booklet encourages science academies to provide evidence-based policy advice on IBSE — its features, successful contextual implementation, advantages and disadvantages; and to disseminate these messages widely.”

Girls are especially disadvantaged in a regional context where children overall are out of school in huge numbers, the booklet observes. “Access to basic quality education for most of sub-Saharan Africa’s children remains a distant reality,” it says — and the majority of those who are out of school are girls.

Citing the United Nation’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, the publication notes that, worldwide, about 75-million children are not in school, 55% of these are girls and almost half the total number is in sub-Saharan Africa.

“In Africa, the focus has been for many years on educating boys rather than girls for political, social and economic reasons,” the booklet says. Women were encouraged to be homemakers and caregivers, and they remain the poorest group in sub-Saharan Africa.

The booklet details prejudices that discourage girls from studying maths and science, including myths such as:

  • “Science is for boys or ‘Tom boys’
  • “Girls believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence that is below what is required to understand science
  • “Boys are smarter than girls; and
  • “Scientists are nerdy”

There are also social and classroom factors that disadvantage girls. These include:

  • A lack of parental, teacher and role model support to encourage the pursuit of science subjects
  • The “different learning styles” girls have from those of boys “are not often considered in the curriculum and teacher development”
  • Girls find “classroom environments (such as seating arrangements and teaching techniques)” intimidating; and
  • A lack of financial support structures that support science education for girls

As a teaching and learning method, IBSE “comprises experiences that enable students to develop understanding about the scientific aspects of the world around them through the development and use of inquiry skills”, the booklet says, quoting from two experts in the field.

For instance, IBSE encourages students to explore science through “first-hand manipulation of objects and materials” and “using evidence gained from the internet, teachers and scientists”.

IBSE also encourages teachers to develop students’ reasoning abilities, the booklet says. Assessment of this would focus on the progress of skills development rather than on one correct answer.

But there are multiple challenges to implementing IBSE in sub-Saharan Africa, the booklet says. These include:

  • The lack of access to quality resources and facilities for teaching, for instance access to the internet and teacher support material
  • The multilingual nature of most classrooms, which can pose a problem when implementing the approach; and
  • The lack of career guidance to inform girls of science-related careers.

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Amanda Strydom
Amanda Strydom is the Mail & Guardian online's night editor. With a background in science and journalism, she has a black belt third dan in ballet and, according to a statistical analysis of the past three years, reads 2.73 books every week. She never finishes her tea, although she won't say no to a cupcake. But only just this once.

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