Research Matters - to the Science
Encouraging Girls in Science Courses and Careers
by Jane Butler Kahle
In the United States women comprise approximately 50% of the work
force, yet only 9% are employed as scientists and engineers. Factors
contributing to this situation have been analyzed in research
studies. Explanations have ranged from differences in spatial ability
related to a sex-linked gene to differences in early childhood toys
and games. One study reported a dramatic decline in positive
attitudes toward science as girls mature. The authors attribute this
decline to startling inequities in the number of science activities
experienced by males and females in elementary and secondary
classrooms. In addition, the analysis of the results from the 1981-82
National Assessment of Educational Progress science study indicate
that girls continue to score below the national mean on all science
achievement items and to express negative attitudes toward science.
Although societal, educational, and personal factors are all
involved, differences within the science classroom may be a
contributing factor to low interest of women in science and
However some girls like science and continue to study science. In
order to determine what motivates these girls to pursue science
courses and careers, a group of researchers conducted nationwide
surveys to identify teachers who have motivated high school girls to
continue in science. In addition to assessing instructional
techniques, classroom climate, and teacher-student interactions, a
selected sample of students (former and current) responded to
questionnaires which assessed attitudes, intellectual and
Two types of research, observational and survey, were used to gather
data for this project. The case studies, which were the observational
part of this project, provided information about the student-teacher
and student-student interactions. Case studies are limited in the
extent to which they may produce generalizations applicable to other
situations. Therefore, they were supplemented with survey data,
describing the abilities, activities, and aspirations of the involved
students and teachers. These research efforts led to the following
Teachers who successfully encourage girls in
- Maintain well-equipped, organized, and perceptually
- Are supported in their teaching activities by the parents of
their students and are respected by current and former
- Use non-sexist language and examples and include information
on women scientists.
- Use laboratories, discussions, and weekly quizzes as their
primary modes of instruction and supplement those activities with
field trips and guest speakers.
- Stress creativity and basic skills and provide career
Factors which discourage girls in science:
- High school counselors who do not encourage further courses in
science and mathematics.
- Lack of information about science-related career opportunities
and their prerequisites.
- Sex-stereotyped views of science and scientists which are
projected by texts, media, and many adults.
- Lack of development of spatial ability skills (which could be
fostered in shop and mechanical drawing classes).
- Fewer experiences with science activities and equipment which
are stereotyped as masculine (mechanics, electricity,
The teachers, both male and female, who were successful in
motivating girls to continue to study science practiced "directed
intervention." That is, girls were asked to assist with
demonstrations; were required to perform, not merely record, in the
laboratories; and were encouraged to participate in science-related
field trips. In addition, teachers stressed the utility of math and
science for future careers.
Both male and female students in the schools identified as "positive
toward girls in science" were questioned about their attitudes toward
science and science careers. When compared with a national sample,
the students in these schools had a much more positive outlook. This
difference was especially pronounced among girls. When asked how
frequently they like to attend science class, 67% of the girls
responded "often," compared with 32% of the girls in the national
sample. And when asked if they would like to pursue a science-related
job, 65% of the girls said "yes," compared with 32% of the girls in
the national sample.
This research suggests that teaching styles and other school-related
factors are important in encouraging girls as well as boys to
continue in science courses and careers. The path to a scientific
career begins in high school and requires skilled and sensitive
teachers. This research identified the following "Do's" and "Don'ts"
for teachers who want to foster equity in science classrooms.
Research Matters - to the Science
use laboratory and discussion activities
provide career information
directly involve girls in science activities
provide informal academic counseling
demonstrate unisex treatment in science classrooms
use sexist humor
use sex-stereotyped examples
distribute sexist classroom materials
allow boys to dominate discussions or activities
allow girls to passively resist
is a publication of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching
Dr. Jane Butler Kahle is Professor of Biological Science
and Education and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Purdue
University, West Lafayette, Indiana. She is a member of the National
Association for Research in Science Teaching, an organization that
seeks to improve science teaching through research.
This research is described in a monograph available from the
author and in a book, Women in Science: A Report from the
Field, Falmer Press, available summer 1985. For further
information contact: Dr. J. B. Kahle, 221 CHEM, Purdue University, W.
Lafayette, Indiana 47907.