Gender equality in Stem would `deny human nature'

11th July 2014 at 01:00
Psychologist says boys and girls are drawn to different subjects

Schools should abandon efforts to attract more girls into physics, computing and engineering because pupils with an aptitude for the subjects will choose them anyway, an academic has claimed.

Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow, said that effort was wasted trying to bridge gender divides in education when innate differences meant that boys and girls would always be drawn to different subjects and careers.

"We probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses," Dr Stoet told a British Education Studies Association conference in Glasgow.

Initiatives to reduce gender divides "completely deny human biology and nature", the academic said, adding that it was "really hard" to attract girls to subjects such as computing.

"Girls will say, `Well, that's boring, I'm just not interested in it,' " he said. "We need to have a national debate on why we find it so important to have equal numbers. Do we really care that only 5 per cent of the programmers are women? Well, actually, I don't care who programs my computers.

"A wealthy, democratic society can afford to let people do what they want. What is better? To have 50 per cent of female engineers who do not really like their work but say, `Yeah, well, I did it for the feminist cause.' Or do you want 3 per cent of female engineers who say, `I really like my job'?"

Policymakers needed to take a more evidence-based approach, Dr Stoet argued. There would be an outcry if a health minister backed homeopathy despite evidence against its usefulness, he said, but there was less opposition when decisions in education were based on hunches.

Dr Stoet was also sceptical about the impact of gender-specific role models, citing work by his former colleague Professor Bruce Carrington. "He found no evidence that girls are more inspired or inclined to learn when they are being taught by female teachers, and the same is true for boys," Dr Stoet said.

Areas where girls struggled, such as maths, gained greater media attention even though boys generally performed worse at school, claimed Dr Stoet, who is based at the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change.

"Nobody seems to be that interested that boys have problems. We have, as human beings, a natural tendency to see women as vulnerable and needing help. But if it's a boy who needs help, he's responsible for himself," he said.

The controversial comments fly in the face of various initiatives from the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) community aiming to encourage more girls to pursue these subjects.

In May this year, education minister Elizabeth Truss said that England's school system was suffering from "science deserts" where too few students, particularly girls, were studying the sciences. At half of all mixed state schools not a single girl was taking physics at A-level, she added.

Stuart Farmer, from the Association for Science Education, said there was poor uptake among girls for physical sciences, computer science and engineering, "despite considerable effort over many years to address this".

"The influence of wider societal pressures and norms should not be underestimated," he said. "This starts with things as simple as pink for a girl baby and blue for a boy baby, and goes on to things such as segregated toys and books in shops, although this is starting to be addressed."

Clare Thomson, pre-19 curriculum and diversity manager at the Institute of Physics, said the body's research had found that schools with few girls studying physics also had low numbers of boys taking English and psychology, which "led us to think that however good your physics department might be there were likely to be other factors of a whole-school nature".

If a girl declared an interest in physics, she added, parents and teachers were more likely to ask, "Do you really want to do that? It might be difficult."

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