Gender equity in access to scientific careers: how to promote formative assessment


A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years in all levels of STEM subjects worldwide. Despite efforts to reduce this gap and the significant progress made, gender stereotypes continue to strongly influence girls' choices in scientific careers, with schools playing an important role in debunking these stereotypes.
In order to contribute to gender equity in the choice of scientific careers, a set of activities was planned and developed in two classes within the Natural Sciences course of 7th-grade students (aged 12-13 years old) as part of the thematic unit 'Science, technology, society, and the environment: science as a product of human activity.' These activities were also integrated with the classes in the sexual education curriculum. The strategy aimed to deconstruct gender stereotypes related to women's performance in scientific careers and also to promote discussions on issues related to parenthood.

The activity

The activity took place over the course of 3 lessons:

First lesson – Students were asked to identify stereotypes related to the person a scientist is, involving the development of a worksheet with two steps. In the first step, students were invited to illustrate and describe their ideas about the characteristics of a person involved in scientific work, aiming to identify gender stereotypes among other aspects. In the second part, students were provided with an image and text about the professional activities of Amanda Weltman, an astrophysicist. They were asked to make comparisons, noticing the similarities and differences in aspects such as gender, age, family, or personality traits, between their preconceived notions of a person involved in science and the one presented in the worksheet. After this individual work, a group discussion was held, involving the entire class, where different opinions were compared to reach a joint conclusion with a focus on gender equality in scientific work.

“Other characteristics – Ana Gomez - Scientist (Mexican) at NASA in the field of astronomy. She is a friendly person, always smiling and in a good mood. Her main qualities are intelligence, kindness, and courage. After discovering a 20th-century device in space (while examining photos taken by a space robot), she met her husband, a scientist who helped her with her theory. Today, she lives happily with her husband and their two children.”

Second lesson - Research, in small groups, on biographies of women who have contributed or are currently contributing to scientific endeavors.

Third lesson - Conception of posters with the gathered information for exhibition and dissemination within the school community on the 'Day of Scientific Literacy'.

Poster promoting the Women in Science Exhibition - Natural Sciences and Physical Chemistry sciences

The formative assessment of each student's values proves to be a complex task. Allowing each one to clarify, in the context of a given value, the ideas they hold, and then challenging them by contrasting them with different ideas, is a sufficiently challenging process capable of promoting inner change and learning. Regarding the choice of scientific careers, we often encounter gender stereotypes that influence girls' choices in scientific fields. Deconstructing these stereotypes is essential to promote the desired gender equity.
With this activity, we aim for the student to: i) become aware of the ideas they hold about people who engage in science, ii) confront their ideas with a real-life case, identifying inconsistencies between their beliefs and reality, and iii) construct, through discussion with peers, a closer idea to the accepted value regarding gender equity in access to scientific careers.
It is the teacher's role to moderate the debate, encouraging students to substantiate their ideas.
This activity was carried out by 38 students, 17 girls and 21 boys, with only one girl initially thinking of the person who does science as a woman. All other students drew and described male scientists.
After 8 months, a small questionnaire was administered to identify the students' ideas. All the students state that the idea that one needs to be a man to be a scientist is false; 2 students consider that scientific work is not the best choice for a woman, and 5 students believe that being a scientist implies not having a family life. Thus, although the stereotype associating scientific activity only with males is not present anymore, there are still some ideas related to parenthood that can influence choices regarding scientific careers.

Margarida Oliveira
(Secondary School, include 7-12) Escola EB 2,3 S Artur Gonçalves, Portugal

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