(Why) is femininity excluded from science?
By IOE Blog Editor, on 18 November 2016
— Emily MacLeod
The lack of gender diversity within science is well documented and well researched. Many have attempted to pinpoint the reasons for the lack of women participating in science, and/or generate methods to solve the sector’s lack of diversity. However, whilst there remains a great deal of focus on the subject of Women in Science, discussion is lacking when it comes to the role femininity plays within this.
In our latest paper we focus on ‘hyper-femininity’; specifically ‘girlyness’ and its relation to participation in science – traditionally portrayed and perceived as a masculine subject – with a focus on Physics, typically represented as the most masculine of the sciences. Using data collected from in-depth qualitative interviews with 70 Year 11 (age 15/16) students and 66 of their parents, we analysed transcripts in the context of ‘girly girls’ and science, specifically Physics. We found the following discourses:
- Anyone can do Physics, even ‘girly girls’: A number of those interviewed expressed the view that there is equality of opportunity for all – rejecting the idea that ‘girly girls’ are discouraged from or disaffected by Physics; ‘I think like, you can’t be stereotypical… If they enjoy [physics] then they can do it, so I think it completely depends on the person’ (Isabel, Sri Lankan girl). This view was shared by more girls than boys; with a greater percentage of boys (57%) than girls (41%) agreeing with the view that girls who are particularly ‘girly’ are less likely to want to pursue Physics. On one hand this finding can be seen as encouraging; a number of students and parents supported their beliefs with tales of the ‘girly girls’ they know who are interested in Physics. However, this contrasts with existing evidence that ‘girlyness’ is hard to maintain over time in association with science[i].
- ‘Girly girls’ are too superficial to study Physics: In contrast, some of those interviewed agreed that ‘girly girls’ are less likely to want to pursue science, often citing superficiality; ‘if you’re a particularly girly girl I assume there’s a lot of socialisation involved as well as concerns with your appearance… and if you’re putting all your energy into something else then you may in your mind not have time for science… [which] requires a lot of preparation’ (Buddy, White British boy). Interestingly, the focus on appearance was commonly given as a reason why ‘girly girls’ wouldn’t participate in Physics; a number of students and parents suggested that the ‘hands on’ and ‘dirty’ Physics environment would surely ruin the manicured nails of a ‘girly girl’. A lack of intelligence or focus was also attributed to the ‘girly girl’ character, and given as a reason why she would not suit work in Physics – which was regularly described as a ‘hard’ subject.
These contrasting discourses were not mutually exclusive; some interviewees expressed views which seemingly presented ‘girly girls’ as both able and unable to do Physics. This was in part due to the way in which Physics participation was viewed by interviewees as both a personal choice dictated by an individual’s interests, and a decision likely to be influenced by societal stereotypes.
Despite the emerging view that ‘anybody can do anything’, the notion that ‘girlyness’ and science cannot co-exist remains. Our student and parent interviewees reaffirmed the construct of Physics as difficult and masculine, and questioned how ‘girly girls’, seen as superficial and dim, could possibly work within this context. In order to challenge this, we call for science to be represented as open to all, no matter how one embodies one’s gender. Furthermore, there is a simultaneous need to confront and challenge the existing constructions of ‘girlyness’ and femininity as superficial and dim.
This blog is a summary of the following open access article: Becky Francis, Louise Archer, Julie Moote, Jen DeWitt & Lucy Yeomans. (2016). Femininity, science, and the denigration of the girly girl. British Journal of Sociology of Education. doi: 10.1080/01425692.201
[i] See Walkerdine, V. 1990. Schoolgirl Fictions. London: Verso Books & Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, and Wong, B. 2013. “‘Not Girly, Not Sexy, Not Glamorous’: Primary School Girls’ and Parents’ Constructions of Science Aspirations.” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 21 (1): 171–194.