The Gender Neutral Laboratory #IWD2017
On International Women's Day 2017, Paul MacLellan writing for Education in Chemistry has suggested that gender inequality in Chemistry is "not somebody else's problem". However, what can we actually do to improve gender equality in STEM teaching? Paul highlights two issues which chemistry teachers should be responding to in the classroom.
50 : 50
Firstly, although chemistry has a nigh on 50:50 gender balance of male to female students, more female students take chemistry as a means to an end, for example to apply for medical courses at university, than male students, rather than as an end in itself. In short, girls tend to take chemistry because they need to, rather than because they want to. This doesn't suggest that chemistry is as immune to gender imbalance as the statistics appear to show.
Secondly, although chemistry has an egalitarian gender split, this is not the case in the other sciences as so the students in chemistry lessons are still holding deep prejudices that 'biology is for girls' and 'physics is for geeky boys'. Students coming together in equal ratios in the chemistry lab provides an opportunity to face up to these preconceptions in science.
So what can we do about it?
It is important to recognise that it is okay to take chemistry because you are interested in becoming a doctor. When I suggest that there is an imbalance, I feel that this is from both sides. Are some girls who love chemistry being put off from taking it even though they aren't planning to study chemistry or medicine at university by the way we are teaching KS4? Are some boys who may be great doctors unaware that they need to take chemistry in order to make an application to medical school?
Girls tend to be more engaged in ideas that they think can change the world, rather than being as interested in abstract concepts as boys. Obviously, students form a spectrum in terms of their interests which is only loosely related to gender and we need to be careful about generalising, but I do think that we need to ensure that we provide balanced teacher-talk. We should make sure there are opportunities for students to solve problems for problems' sake, and also for them to apply their understanding to real-world issues and try to make the world a better place. Both kinds of approach should be offered theoretically and practically as part of our curricula, ensuring that we are embedding a love of problem-solving in chemistry in as many students as possible. We all have a tendency to get excited about the kinds of problems we enjoy (I'm an abstract thinker - I have to work really hard to ensure that I put enough 'change the world' thinking into my lessons), forgetting that students have a range of preferences and different approaches will be more effective at inspiring a love of chemistry in different students.
We also need to make sure that we demonstrate to all students how useful chemistry is an an A-level subject. This year I had two boys join my class at very late notice in Year 12 because they had previously been unaware that chemistry was required for medicine. Students need to have real talk about what subjects they need to take in order to aim for the careers they want. This means discussing these issues in class rather than waiting for interested students to come and ask; we are not always aware of all of our students' aspirations.
We also have a duty to ensure that chemistry teaching tackles students' misconceptions about physics and biology. We teach a number of topics which overlap with the other sciences and must work hard to ensure that the same gender imbalances do not build up between physical and organic chemistry at A-level, for example.
We also have a duty to ensure that chemistry teaching tackles students' misconceptions about physics and biology.
One way of doing this, with sufficiently expert teachers, is to mix up the teaching between organic and physical chemistry a little more. Most schools split straight down the middle and have two different teachers, one for organic and one for physical. If you can, splitting the physical and organic up between teachers can remove this imbalance. Although it can have other problems with coherence of the course if not planned extremely carefully.
A better way may be to ensure that the physical chemistry, is not taught to 'geeky physics boys' but to everyone. Using a range of teaching styles, holistic and step-wise thinking, different problem-solving styles (real-world and abstract), time for reflection and group discussion, can make this teaching more gender neutral and reduce the pigeon-holing of physical sciences as masculine. Equally, we must make an effort to ensure that in the organic chemistry classroom, there is space for complex problem-solving, quick-fire questioning and abstract reasoning, not just making beautiful notes, drawing pictures, and discussing and evaluating practical procedures. Both disciples need to be taught in a gender balanced style.
We must not pander to stereotypes and just teach organic chemistry to 'girls' and physical chemistry to 'boys'.
Transferring of themes between organic and physical chemistry can also help enormously with reducing the gender divide between the two disciplines. For example, using the Born-Haber cycle to explain why a particular product is formed in an organic reaction, using equilibria to predict the appropriate reaction conditions for an organic synthesis step or using mechanisms as examples of different rate equations in physical chemistry. I have recently experienced the delight of some Year 13 students applying for Engineering courses at university in the principles of organic practical chemistry; the apparatus, the set-up, the conditions, etc. and it reminded me of the close links between engineering (a predominantly male discipline) and the apparently gender-neutral chemistry laboratory.
While it is fantastic that A-level chemistry classrooms across the country have a gender balance, we do have a duty to ensure that this is for the right reasons and that we are not propagating stereotypes in our own teaching. Even within single sex education students have a range of interests and problem solving styles and interests and this range still needs to be taken into account. So regardless of the school environment, let's create Gender Neutral Laboratories in 2017.