Saturday, 26 May 2012

Invisible women

I was listening to an RSA podcast by Mark Easton about his book Britain Etc.  It sounded like an interesting read, and I will probably get it at some point.  If you don’t already know about the RSA podcasts then it is worth exploring the archive.  Every week they have a speaker (admittedly often with a book to sell!) who gives a 30 – 40 minute talk and then answers questions.  They have some really fascinating speakers, with many different view points, not all of whom I agree with.

However, it was a question from the audience at the end of the Mark Easton talk that has set me thinking.  It was from Christina, who represents ‘invisible women.  She asked ‘Where were the women in the book?’  And Easton obviously struggles to identify any named women in his book. Oops.

I like the idea that there is someone who represents ‘invisible women’.  A little like the Lorax who speaks for the trees.   Someone who asks the awkward question ‘Where are the women?’

The invisible women have been a problem in science for a long time.  It is well known that the path towards ‘scientist’ is a very leaky pipeline and there have been many attempts to deal with this, and to encourage more women to remain in Science, Engineering and Technology.

Last year, Ofsted published a report ‘Girls’ career aspirations’. One, slightly depressing, finding was:

Almost all the girls and young women who took part in the survey were open to the possibility of pursuing a career that challenged gender stereotypes, if the career interested them sufficiently. Their awareness of this potential, however, did not always translate into practice.  page 4

Ofsted visited primary schools as part of the survey, and they found that from year 3 children were thinking about what type of career they would like to do, albeit fairly stereotypical ones*. Further up the education tree, Ofsted also found that careers education at KS3 was weak, which made it difficult for girls (and presumably boys) to make choices which challenged their stereotyped ideas.

Which set me to thinking, given the dismantling of the careers advice service, what classroom teachers could do to support all students in their future career choices, and open up a wider world of ideas to them.

Although focussed on increasing the numbers of girls studying Physics at post-16, the Institute of Physics publication ‘Girls in thePhysics Classroom: A teachers guide for action’ is a useful resource when thinking about promoting careers.  The publication suggests that relevance to ‘real life’ is an important factor in enjoyment and take-up of physics, especially for girls.  Using information about scientists and science careers is, I think, an ideal way of increasing the relevance of science to learners.

A recent twitter discussion about classroom displays, started by @hrogerson, led to a discussion about what could go on the walls. Shortly after this, @sciteachcremin wrote an interesting blog post about the displays that he is required to put up for his school. I think that many secondary schools are quite a long way behind primary schools in making the school environment a rich visual stimulus. Walk into any primary school and the displays are usually eye-catching, curriculum linked, and regularly changed. 

This then, dear reader, is today’s suggestion:   

Use classroom displays to highlight the ‘invisible women’ who work in science, technology, and engineering based careers. 

Make sure that ALL the students in your class know what different careers they can follow if they study science.  Help them to find out what it takes to be a radiologist, an accident investigator, a landscape gardener** and so on, and make sure that they know that it can be done by women, as well as men.

I run physics courses for teachers, and one of the things that I say a lot is that you need to make sure that the contexts used in physics appeal to everyone in the class at some point, and that those interests will be many and varied.  We can’t assume that you can pop in a reference to football and hair straighteners and BINGO you’ve contextualised the learning for everyone!  More on that another blog, perhaps.

In much the same way, in all science teaching, by introducing different careers, you begin to provide all the students in your class with role models and information about what they might do.  So if a student is interested in medicine, then it is worthwhile highlighting some of the other careers in the health service to them – after all they’re not all going to become doctors.

One of the difficulties here though is that as a classroom teacher we don’t always have the level of careers knowledge that we might like.  Luckily there are a whole raft of useful resources out there which can help. 

Future morph - website set up by the Science council to highlight different science and technology based careers.  There are sections of the site aimed at different age students, parents, teachers and careers staff.  Plenty of ideas here including this list of examples of careers linked to different science topics. 

Talent 2030 –Aimed at students, but useful for teachers.  Mainly engineering information, with a nice section of ‘Heroes’ showcasing some of the career possibilities. 

WiSET – Some interesting case studies from women at different stages of their careers, from apprenticeships to management and leadership.
NHS – If you’re not sure what jobs there are in the NHS apart from the doctors and nurses then this website will give you some ideas!
Steminist – US based, but does have a nice list of historical figures (most of whom you won’t have heard of, but should have) and interviews with women currently working in STEM careers.

And the final resource I'd like to highlight is This is what a scientist looks like. A very lovely collection of photos of people working in science, sometimes out in the field, sometimes not, to show what science looks like.  People from all over the world represented here. Scroll down to the bottom to get to the archives with hundreds and hundreds of photos and short bios about scientists!
So, go and speak for the 'invisible women' and maybe inspire all your students!

"In discussion about what they would like to do for a job, the youngest pupils talked about wanting to become teachers or vets (girls), footballers or pilots (boys). The Year 6 girls interviewed had a wider idea of what they might like to do with some already talking of science alongside nursing, teaching, police, armed services, care services, hairdressing and beauty work. Boys continued to prefer sports or applied technology vocations, a games designer being a popular notion. Around half (51 out of 112) of the Year 6 boys spoken to were thinking of these two areas. In contrast, only four of the 113 girls surveyed referred to sport (horse riding and gymnastics) while 43 were aiming at performing or graphic arts, or writing. Only five girls and six boys had no definite thought about a future job. No Year 6 pupil, girl or boy, wanted to be a nursery nurse or childminder although they all thought that these were ‘girls jobs’." Girls' careers aspirations, Ofsted, 2011, pg 7.

** all taken from Future Morph careers list.