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Editor’s choice: On the science aspirations of primary school girls

Published in Editor's Choice, Inequalities, Self and Identity by on April 15, 2013

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Top of the class this week:

Louise Archer, Jennifer DeWitt, Jonathan Osborne, Justin Dillon, Beatrice Willis & Billy Wong (2013): ‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’: primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 21:1, 171-194.

Why is it the case that girls, even from a young age, stick science in the ‘not for me’ category? Louise Archer and colleagues explored this question in a recent article that focused on the 10-14 age band. Here’s the abstract:   

Internationally, there is widespread concern about the need to increase participation in the sciences (particularly the physical sciences), especially among girls/women. This paper draws on data from a five-year, longitudinal study of 10–14-year-old children’s science aspirations and career choice to explore the reasons why, even from a young age, many girls may see science aspirations as ‘not for me’. We discuss data from phase one – a survey of over 9000 primary school children (aged 10/11) and interviews with 92 children and 78 parents, focusing in particular on those girls who did not hold science aspirations. Using a feminist poststructuralist analytic lens, we argue that science aspirations are largely ‘unthinkable’ for these girls because they do not fit with either their constructions of desirable/intelligible femininity nor with their sense of themselves as learners/students. We argue that an underpinning construction of science careers as ‘clever’/‘brainy’, ‘not nurturing’ and ‘geeky’ sits in opposition to the girls’ self-identifications as ‘normal’, ‘girly’, ‘caring’ and ‘active’. Moreover, we suggest that this lack of fit is exacerbated by social inequalities, which render science aspirations potentially less thinkable for working-class girls in particular. The paper concludes with a discussion of potential implications for increasing women’s greater participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

This paper should be of significant interest to many in education, especially those researchers with a focus on questions of identity and inequality, but also classroom practitioners and policy makers keen to overcome polarised divisions in educational participation. They should take note of the theoretical framework also, one that draws from different sources to shed light on an age-old problem:

… we employ a conceptual framework that draws on feminist poststructuralist theorisations of ‘identity’ as a means for understanding children’s identifications with science and how they reconcile their science aspirations with gendered identity performances. This approach includes Judith Butler’s (1990, 1993) theorisations of gender as ‘performance’ and integrates it with a conceptualisation of gender as intersecting with, and mediated by, other social axes, such as ‘race’/ethnicity and social class (Archer and Francis 2007; Calabrese Barton and Brickhouse 2006).

I do wonder though how ‘unthinkable’ a science identity actually is for 10-14 year old girls – i.e., how much ambivalence is attached to unvoiced perceptions of science careers? More to the point, how questionable is the binary divide between the ‘thinkable’ and the ‘unthinkable’? Feel free to comment, but try and read this article in full if you can, recommended.     

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About the author /

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.


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    Jonathan Firth

    Very interesting stuff, Mark. Identity seems to be a slightly neglected aspect of educational research, with the focus usually being on attainment and skills. I would imagine that identity is important to attainment as well as uptake… Also, are you aware of this research:

    I am currently interested in the role of Psychology in learners’ science identity, because it tends to be much more popular with female students than other scientific subjects.

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