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A new recruit’s lessons from the Improving Gender Balance conference

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At the end of February, having muddled my way through my first week at the IOP, I found myself on a train up to York to attend the Improving Gender Balance conference.

Seat found and obligatory coffee in hand, out came my multiplicity of reading material. First, the official-looking IOP reports Closing Doors and Opening Doors, followed by a deluge of rather dog-eared handwritten notes, my table was soon covered by a somewhat structurally unsound mountain of paperwork, prone to collapse. Two hours later and I reached York feeling more confident about my understanding into the issues surrounding gender imbalance and the work of the IOP surrounding it.

As I sat down to listen to Professor Becky Parker of the Institute for Research in Schools give her presentation, Student Research in schools: does it work for girls?, it dawned on me that it has been ten years since I studied for my science GSCEs, and I subsequently dropped all sciences in favour of humanities at A-level. The teaching environment Parker was describing, the opportunities on offer to young women, and the amazing research being completed by these students makes me question whether if the opportunities had been available or offered to me whether I would have fonder memories of my own school science experiences.

Maybe, just maybe, I would be sitting here with a geography degree which made some allusion to the scientific elements of the discipline rather than purely humanities and social aspects.

The Improving Gender Balance project, out of which this conference developed, is designed to investigate and identify the most effect approach to encouraging more girls to pursue physics post-16. The project is dived into three separate strands.

Strand A is concerned with working with girls at KS3–4 with a view to building and nurturing their confidence and resilience. Strand B, sees project officers working directly with physics teachers to enhance the experience of girls in the physics classroom. The final strand, Strand C involves a school-wide approach to gender equity.

After a short break for lunch, we returned to the lecture theatre to presentations by two of the eight schools from Strand A. The presentations by students from Hummersknott Academy and Framwellgate School charted their experiences as participants in the project and the work they had carried out. What became apparent was a common theme, a highlighting and questioning of gender stereotyping. Both groups had visited primary schools and conducted their own research interested in the fundamental question “what does it mean to be a girl?”.

With the lessons learned and the points raised by the students still ringing in my ears, it was time for Dr Sherria Hoskins’ presentation Growth Mindsets, Developing girls’ ability to learn in subjects with stereotype threat. It was both informative and enlightening, questioning whether the discipline of psychology and the concept of mindsets could help explain and counteract the shockingly low number of women studying science not only at A-level but also to university.

Hoskins explained that there are two mindsets: growth and fixed. A person in possession of a growth mindset will believe that ability is malleable and can be developed and improved through tasks. In this light, those with a growth mindset believe that success and failure can be directly attributed to the amount of or lack of effort and persistence exerted during the completion of a task. On the contrary, those with a fixed mindset believe that ability is determined from birth, that it is not open to adaption and cannot be greatly altered.

Hoskins went onto relate mindsets to the teaching and learning of STEM subjects at school. Personally, I found the idea that mistakes should be celebrated rather than feared, in a desire to allow children to feel comfortable both making and learning from mistakes, truly interesting. Thinking back to my own experience of school, I remember enjoy subjects such as English and geography because the answers were open to personal interpretation, and with a convincing and well-thought-out argument there was seemingly no wrong answer.

In my own experience, the exact opposite appeared to be true for the sciences and maths, there was only one correct answer and no amount of shown working out was going to get you the full marks, if the answer struck upon was wrong. This fear of being wrong and perhaps more importantly the satisfaction gained from a right answer, pushed me away from science and maths and the mistakes I associated with them and firmly into the humanities.

Hoskins also discussed how the language teachers use, sometimes unwittingly can foster and encourage fixed mindsets in students. A change as simple as saying “let’s work through the mistake together” instead of “never mind, you are good at other things” might be the difference between a student actively challenging themselves and giving up.

We are aware that stereotypes abound when discussing science at a school level and the wider field of STEM, it is interesting to consider how with a change in mindset more girls might decide to pursue the STEM subjects not only academically at school but also begin to imagine a career for themselves within the field.

And with that my day in York was over, after a quick dash back to the station all that was left to do, was mill over what I had learned, to question the way I had been taught science at school and determine whether I had a growth or fixed mindset.

Ellen Phillips

Ellen Phillips

IOP's education support administrator
Ellen Phillips
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