Men’s attitudes to women and science are shaped strongly by their experiences when they were boys. It is therefore important to encourage boys from a young age to consider it perfectly normal for women and girls to succeed and have careers in science.
As a recent article by the US-based National Alliance for Partnership in Equity observed: “Girls know the reality. Boys don’t exactly flock after girls who groove on soldering motherboards on the dining room table or doing trig problems for fun in their heads. Okay, these examples are over the top. But the problem remains: girls come under tremendous pressure to “girly” it up if they want to be popular and romantically desirable, and that doesn’t include STEM. And we are doing nothing to arm them against these pressures, to help them think critically about them… or to change how boys think about such girls”.
Much research has been undertaken on the differences between boys’ and girls’ attitudes to school and learning, with the OECD (2015, p.51) for example emphasising that by the age of 15 “These seem to be strongly related to how girls and boys have absorbed society’s notions of “masculine” and “feminine” behaviour and pursuits as they were growing up”. Rather little work, though, has been undertaken specifically on how boys’ attitudes to girls and science are shaped, and the ways that these can be changed.
Parents and teachers have a very significant role in shaping boys’ attitudes. Usually, they reinforce social norms, and particularly gender-stereotyping. These norms also vary significantly across cultures, and it is not easy to produce universal recommendations about how best to challenge these expecatations. However, as the OECD (2015, p.138) again emphasises, in most countries “parents were more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to work in a STEM field, even when boys and girls perform at the same level in mathematics” (see our guidance note on what fathers can do). The following ideas drawn from existing good practices can indeed help to encourage boys everywhere to have more positive attitidudes towards girls and women in science and technology.
Things to do to encourage boys to respect and appreciate girls and women in STEM
- Always make it clear that both girls and boys can achieve excellence in STEM subjects and careers.
- Use examples of both women and men in STEM when speaking about careers.
- Use teaching materials with positive illustrations of women scientists in them.
- Don’t use male pronouns (he or him) when talking with boys generically about scientists, engineers or mathematicians.
- Challenge gendered stereotypes on TV and other media that depict women scientists as being unattractive.
- Encourage boys to read about the achievements of famous women scientists and mathematicians.
This Guidance Note (first version, April 2019) was prepared by Tim Unwin and is available for downloading (.pdf format) in ENGLISH here, na HRVATSKOM ovdje (translated by Sanja Cancar), po POLSKU tutaj (translated by Marcin Czubak) and en ESPAÑOL aquí (translated by Silvana Cordero)
The following research and articles were used in drafting these recommendations, and provide further advice on the subject:
- Actua (2018) Coding the future: what Canadian youth and their parents think about coding, Actua.
- Betteley, C. (2017) Science ‘for boys’ message putting girls off some careers, BBC News Wales.
- Breakwell, G.M. and Beardsell, S. (1992) Gender, parental and peer influences upon science attitudes and activities, Public Understanding of Science, 1(2).
- Ghimire, A. and Samuels, F. (2020) A tale of contradictions: understabding the impact of social norms on Nepali men and boys, Gender & Adolescence Global Evidence Policy Brief,
- Kelly, A. (1986) The development of girls’ and boys’ attitudes to science: a longitudinal study, International Journal of Science Education, 8(4), 399-412.
- Lappin-Scott, S. (2017) To get more women in STEM little girls need better role models, The Conversation
- Mir, S. (2018) If the men of tomorrow are to respect women, parents have to teach it, The Guardian, 30th October
- National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (no date) Can girls be pretty and good at STEM?
- Nature (2018) How female scientists can confront gender bias in the workplace, Nature 561, 421-423
- OECD (2015) The ABC of Gender Equality in Schools: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, Paris: OECD.
- Samuelsson, M. and Samuelsson, J. (2016) Gender differences in boys’ and girls’ perception of teaching and learning mathematics, Open Review of Educational Research, 3(1), 18-34.
- Uluç, F.O. (2017) How to approach teaching gender equality to boys and girls, British Council.
Although lists are controversial (not least in terms of they ways in which women are often described – and we do not endorse some of the expressions below) the following posts provide information about successful women scientists in different parts of the world that could usefully be used to support advice in our guidance note:
- Asian Scientist (2018) 21 female scientists who slay
- Computing at School, Institute of Coding, Queen Mary University of London, 10 female computing stars through the decades
- Gaffney, A. and Stevenson, I. (2020) 17 women in tech who are transforming the industry, Elle
- Global Citizen (2017) 17 top female scientists who have changed the world
- Guardian (2015) Five amazng female scientists you’ve probably never heard of
- Science Focus (2018) 10 amazing women in science history you really should know about
- ThoughtCo. (2019) Get to know these 91 famous female scientsts: notable female pioneers in science, medicine, and math
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Last updated 12th March 2020