I’m reading the paper and thought I’d make some notes as I go.
The Background begins by discussing the effects of single-sex education on women’s prevalence of studying STEM and the word that immediately springs to mind is ‘equivocal’. It’s all 'this study shows that it helps, but this study shows that it doesn’t. There’s certainly no clear advantage to single-sex education. One thing I thought was important to note was that one study from the UK (Robinson & Gillibrand, 2004) found that while single-sex education helped ‘higher track’ students but did nothing for those on the ‘lower track’. I think this may be a confounding variable that makes single sex private/independent schools do better. Most of the time they take students on ability (at least in part) which means that they’re removing the lower track students before they start, so of course they’re going to get better results than state schools even if there’s no benefit to single-sex education (and I write as someone who went to a girls school and went to uni to study physics).
The next subject of discussion is role models. It’s this part which prompted me to write as I went as I disagree with the definition of ‘role model’ being used. They define it as “examples of female scientists as well as interactions with actual female scientists and science teachers.” but the two contrasting papers they use to determine the utility of role models defines it as ‘female faculty’. The papers they use to show equivocal evidence for the use of role models actually, to my mind, don’t show equivocal evidence at all. The say that one study found that high school faculty didn’t impact the choice of STEM careers but university faculty did. That’s not contradicting evidence - if anything it shows that university faculty has an impact on the prevalence of women accepted onto courses, regardless of their ambition at high school. When it comes to the impact of non-faculty role models, the research seems sparse.
The aim of the study was to study “the effect of certain high school physics experiences on female students’ interest in a physical science career”.
The study looked to see if the following experiences impacted the chances of female students going on to study STEM:
- single sex class
- woman scientist guest speakers
- female physics teacher
- work of women scientists discussed
- underrepresentation discussion
They found that only the underrepresentation discussion had any positive impact and that was slight. They did find that having a female teacher increased the likelihood of the other experiences being experienced but even when all the factors were taken together there was no effect.
The authors suggest that one of the reasons for the lack of impact for single sex education is that it is taught without ‘gender-inclusive curricular reform’ (pp6). For the gender of the teacher, they describe research that shows that the relationship between student and teacher is more important than the sex of the teacher and suggest that this is why guest speakers have little impact - the students “may not have had the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with female scientists who visited on isolated occasions” (pp6).
They also cite research that found that while female scientists felt that role models were important, they couldn’t provide “any convincing stories illus- trating the significance of role models in their lives (either in the form of actual people or in stories in books)” (pp7). My problem with the assumption being that therefore role models are meaningless is that I expect very few women (or men for that matter) can easily point to a single (or even a few) people and say ‘they’re the ones that inspired me’. It’s not about wanting to follow in a particular person’s footsteps, it’s much more subtle than that. Knowing that there’s people like you who’ve done what you want to do can give you the confidence and reassurance to carry on because what you’re trying to do is not impossible. Boys from small towns can dream of playing in the Premiership because there’s footballers who started off where they are, so however extraordinary it seems they know it’s possible because it’s been done and they watch the people who’ve done it on TV all the time.
Going back to the paper, they end with a discussion about the underrepresentation discussion (the only experience with significant impact). They suggest that the benefits of this are letting girls ‘self-realise’ (by which, from the context, I think they mean discussing what the subject means to them rather than have a teacher drone on at them) and by “helping female students realize that feelings of inadequacy or discomfort they might have stem from external norms and pressures rather than from their capabilities, interests, or values” (pp7). However, there’s no discussion of the potential problems of this sort of discussion, as highlighted by Suw.
So that’s the paper. TBH I’m not overly impressed. The dataset they used is large and their analyses seem pretty good (although I’m really confused about their Ns in table 1/figure 1. There seems to be a big difference between the Ns for each experience but I’m not really sure what the N is measuring and whether the difference has led to any weighting in the analysis. At first glance it seems that the reason that ‘underrepresentation discussion’ is able to show significance is because it’s a far bigger sample size than any of the others) but I feel that their definition of ‘role model’ is quite limited and there’s no actual explanation of what ‘under-representation discussion’ actually entailed. Given that the research was done in the US where they seem to be unable to discuss something as straightforward as sex in a sensible manner, I’m really surprised that they’ve been able to discuss the issues surrounding women in STEM in a consistent and good manner that has such a positive impact on future involvement with STEM.