Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 9602 Nov. 13, 1996
A Female Friendly Science Classroom
by Dale R. Baker, College of Education, Arizona State
University, Tempe, AZ
Recently, I was asked to update an article I wrote for Research
Matters which was published in 1988. It reviewed what we knew then
about classroom practices that lead to differential treatment of
males and females. It also suggested ways in which teachers could
create a more equitable and female friendly classroom. As I thought
about writing an update, I asked myself what had changed? Are
classrooms more equitable now than they were almost ten years ago?
What have we learned over the past decade about teaching that creates
a female friendly science classroom?
What Has Changed?
The answer to this question depends upon whether you are the kind
of person who thinks the glass is half full or half empty. When we
think about the ideal, the answer to the question of what has changed
is not much. However, when we look at the changes in terms of the way
we think about the issues, levels of awareness, successful
interventions and research, the answer is quite a bit.
For example, the title of my 1988 article was Teaching For Gender
Differences. Now, I have chosen to title my update A Female Friendly
Science Classroom which more accurately reflects current thinking.
The emphasis has changed from looking for and at differences to ways
to create a classroom that invites young women to participate in
science. And, society as a whole, including teachers is more aware of
the under representation of women in science and concerned about
gender inequities. Finally, some of the teaching strategies I
recommended to promote equity, such as cooperative learning groups in
which roles are well defined and rotated so that everyone has an
opportunity to exhibit competence in a variety of ways, have become
part of most teachers' repertoire.
Are Classrooms More Female Friendly Than They Were
Almost Ten Years Ago?
Myra and David Sadker have recently published a book called
Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls which documents
sexism at all levels of education from kindergarten through
university. Studies that look specifically at science teaching tell
the same story. For example, Jonathan Plucker reports in a 1996
article in The Journal of Research in Science Teaching that high
school science and mathematics teachers don't link educational
factors to the under representation of women in science. Furthermore,
the teachers he studied thought that interventions to promote
achievement and participation of their female students was a form of
reverse discrimination. My own work documents that school age women
who choose science, do so in spite of what happens to them in
schools. These women were fortunate to have had a loved one who
served as a role model and provided the encouragement and interest
provoking experiences missing from classroom instruction.
The situation is not much better at the post-secondary level. The
Education section of The New York Times reported on November 3, 1996
that 40% of women seniors at 88 colleges around the country feel that
the glass ceiling in science is very real and limits women's
advancement. So, despite increased awareness, a better understanding
of what a female friendly classroom looks like and pockets of
success, changes in schools have not been large enough nor widespread
enough to make a significant difference.
What Have We Learned Over The Past Decade About Teaching
That Creates A Female Friendly Science Classroom?
What I will discuss in this section reflects the changes in the
way those of us who are concerned about increasing the participation
of women in science now view the problem. We have learned that we
have to do more than provide access and opportunity to do real
science. We know that if we do not address the issue of science as a
male domain, few young women will take advantage of the opportunities
we provide and many of those who do will ultimately end up dropping
out of science. We have also learned that we have to do more than
teach the same content better. We have to re-evaluate the content we
teach and what it means to teach well.
Science As A Male Domain
There is much less bias in textbooks and curriculum materials now
than there was in 1988. Sexist language has been reduced and there
are more pictures, illustrations and content of interest to girls.
However, the degree of gender equity varies from publisher to
publisher and all instructional materials merit close examination. We
need to look beyond these surface features for masculine metaphors of
dominance and competition such as the master molecule of DNA or
survival of the fittest. We need to look for and question scientific
explanations of phenomena, such as the active sperm fertilizing the
passive egg, that mirror stereotypical gender roles in our
Not only do these metaphors put a masculine face on science, which
discourages many young women, but they ignore other more cooperative
and female friendly metaphors such as the web of life. And, some male
biased explanations may be wrong or at least not the only
interpretation of the data. In the case of fertilization, the
evidence suggests that the egg is active and reaches out and encloses
the sperm with projections from the cell.
An exploration of the research by women scientists such as Diane
Fossey and Barbara McClintock that re-examines how science works,
reading criticisms of science such as the writings of Rachel Carson,
discussing the contributions of women Nobel Prize winners and the
until now, unacknowledged work of women such as Ida Hyde, inventor of
the microelectrode for research in physiology, are necessary
correctives to the masculine image of science. There are a number of
books such as Women of Science by Gabriele Kass-Simon and Deborah
Nash and numerous web sites that are good resources for women
scientists that make including women's contributions to science much
easier now than in the past.
There are also many curriculum materials now being produced that
speak to women's values of cooperation and helping that put a female
friendly face on science. They should be used to balance the
historically masculine bias in science which arose from traditional
social roles and gender experiences. Furthermore, introducing a
caring philosophy reinforces two of the goals for science education
reform proposed by the American Academy for the Advancement of
Science in Science for All Americans. These are a respect for nature
and fostering a concern for progress toward a safe world. Introducing
affect and relations tempers the overemphasis of detachment,
objectivity and values neutrality that turns many young women way
Girls and young women tell me that they want to be scientists
because they want to help people, animals and the world. But the
traditional school curriculum makes expressing these values very
difficult. In part, this difficulty arises because we teach science
without any context. Courses which explore the social and
technological implications of science such as environmental chemistry
are often looked down upon because they are not "real chemistry"
courses. Yet a chemistry course that looks at topics such as air and
water pollution and brings in the contributions of Rachel Carson is
more likely to interest all students as well as teach good science
than one that does not. Such a course provides a context and
rationale for learning facts and theories, connects science to the
lives of students, considers the contribution of a woman scientist,
presents opportunities to explore careers in science and suggests
real-world problems that can be solved by an entire class.
All of these characteristics make science meaningful to young
women. Consequently, if teachers and school districts wish to
interest more women in science, they should consider redesigning
existing courses or creating new courses that include contextualizing
characteristics. Of course, arguments against redesigning science
courses in this way have been raised. The most common is that there
is already too little time to cover all of the topics traditionally
taught in chemistry, biology and physics. However, this argument
flies in the face of science education reform. The American Academy
of Science is highly critical of the "overstuffed curriculum" and
advocates the in-depth study of a few well chosen central concepts
We know that whole class, teacher centered instruction with
question and answer sessions, an emphasis on individual seatwork,
workbook exercises and a heavy reliance on textbooks and rote
learning in which knowledge is presented in isolation is not female
friendly. In fact, it is not male friendly either.
On the other hand we also know that all students benefit from
contextualized science emphasizing real-life problem solving and
small group work. Not only do these strategies lead to a female
friendly classroom, but all students are more confident of their
abilities, more motivated to work and more often on task in these
settings than in whole class instructional settings.
Other ways to promote female friendly instruction in science
include 1) encouraging the development of hypotheses that are
holistic, global, interdependent and multicausal rather than
hierarchical, reductionistic and dualistic, 2) using a combination of
qualitative and quantitative data gathering techniques, 3) Increasing
the amount of time allowed for and varying the kinds of observations
that can be made during activities, and 4) Incorporating and
validating personal experiences in discussions of activities and
Needless to say, instruction of this sort implies a much different
kind of assessment than we have traditionally used. Multiple choice
questions, decontextualized calculations, and examples that speak
only to male experiences are inadequate and should be avoided.
Instead, assessment should match instruction as closely as possible
or better still be embedded in instruction. That means that students
may work together on projects for a group grade and large scale, real
world problem solving becomes the evidence we use to judge students'
Finally, good instruction means paying attention to the basics.
This includes the use of gender neutral language and examples by both
teachers and students. It also includes equal opportunities for all
students to interact with materials, take leadership roles and speak
out in class discussions. And, of course, the teacher should have
high expectations for the success of all students and provide
feedback that focuses on academics.
You can easily monitor these simple but important behaviors by
keeping check lists of the names of students who have participated in
discussions, using sign up sheets for access to materials and
devising other kinds of records of who is called on or volunteers to
speak so that you are sure that everyone is participating. In
addition to these forms of monitoring, you can tape record your
lessons or a colleague can make observations while you teach. Once
these basics become automitized, the less obvious factors which
contribute to a unfriendly classroom can be addressed.
Baker, D., & Leary, R. (1995). Letting girls speak out
science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32,
Blackboard. (1996, November 3). The New York Times, p. 11.
Kass-Simon, G., & Farnes, P. (1990). Women of Science.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Plucker, J. (1966). Secondary science and mathematics teachers and
gender equity: Attitudes and attempted interventions. Journal of
Research in Science Teaching, 33, 737-752.
Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1995). Failing at Fairness: How Our
Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rosser, S., & Kelly, B. (1994). From hostile exclusion to
friendly inclusion: University of South Carolina system model project
for the transformation of science and math teaching to reach women in
varied campus settings. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science
and Engineering, 1, 29-44.
Research Matters - to the Science Teacher is a publication of NARST.
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of NARST