Monday, 7 December 2015

Gendered science

Anyone who has had young daughters will know that the chances of them going through a pink-loving phase are pretty strong. It may be purely a matter of peer pressure, but those horrible Barbie pinks are likely to become part of your life. We'll come back to this preference, but the reason I bring this up is a result of thinking about gender preference for scientific subjects.

 I think I am right in saying without checking (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong) that biological sciences have more female than male undergraduates and postgrads, where the reverse is true of physics. There's a lot of debate as to why this happens. Neither subject, of course, is exclusive. I know plenty of male biologists and female physicists. But there is a bias. This was echoed by the general public according to a recent YouGov survey, which asked the oddly worded question:
One hundred years ago, on November 25th 1915, Albert Einstein presented his general theory of relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Which of the four main branches of natural science do you personally find most interesting?
I say 'oddly worded' because that first sentence smacks of the psychological tactic of priming. It may have just been intended as context for asking the question, but it's always dangerous to provide information before asking a question as it can lead to the answer being biassed by the wording.

Here are the results:

By Gender%TOTALMaleFemale
Biology271538
Chemistry675
Physics203110
Earth science212220
None of them161517
Don't know101010


And, what a surprise, there's an impressive gender switch between biology and physics. It would have been interesting to have seen maths as well, to see if the same preferences obtained. But why? Is it something about the science itself? Could it be how the subjects are taught at schools? Could biology give more context, for instance, where physics provides little idea of history or reason for taking particular approaches? Or is it as much a result of unreasoned peer pressure as the love of Barbie pink? I suspect that these are the main potential contributory factors to shaping these statistics. A lack of role models is sometimes given as a potential reason, but this seems a dubious argument, as there are plenty of male role models in biology, but we still see an opposing bias there, because the media try hard to give female role models in sciences in general these days, and role models seem more likely to influence those studying the subject than a general opinion survey like the one above, yet the bias was clearly there too.

I don't know what the answer is. I certainly don't claim to have one. But it's interesting.

One other small observation - it's sad to see that when the data is split by age (as you can if you follow the link above), interest fell away with as respondents got older. Come on oldies: science is for you too!

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