Thursday, 6 July 2006

Hey girls: Science helps people!

The story of women’s under representation in science begins at school where fewer girls than boys choose to pursue science, especially physics. According to Erica Weisgram and Rebecca Bigler, the secret to enticing more girls into science could be to show them that science helps people, and that it contributes to the overall well-being of society. But the hard part is finding an effective way to convince them of that.

Weisgram and Bigler assessed hundreds of girls before and after they completed a programme in America called ‘Expanding Your Horizons’ that’s designed to increase girls’ interest in science.

The programme involved the girls attending four one-hour sessions on different scientific subjects such as earth science and engineering. The sessions were all presented by a female scientist and involved hands-on activities. Half the girls went on a special version of the programme in which the presenters took extra care to emphasis how their work as a scientist helps people and society.

After the programme, the girls who believed in the altruistic value of science also tended to report having more interest in it, to believe it was more important, and they had stronger belief in their own scientific ability. But the bad news was twofold: firstly, the girls who attended the special version of the course emphasising altruism were no more likely to believe in the altruistic value of science, so in that sense it failed. Secondly, although the course did increase the girls’ interest in science overall, their belief that science is equally appropriate for men and women actually dropped, perhaps because the exclusive use of female presenters focused the girls’ attention on the need for women in science.

“To encourage more women to enter scientific fields, public advertising campaigns, vocational counselling programmes, and educational materials might usefully highlight the ways in which science fulfils individuals’ altruistic values”, the researchers said.

Weisgram, E.S. & Bigler, R.S. (2006). Girls and science careers: The role of altruistic values and attitudes about scientific tasks. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 326-348.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to previous, related Digest item.

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