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Challenging gender assumptions in Science

The Brain

5 September 2014

A neuroscientist from Aston University has unveiled research which challenges assumptions of the reasons behind an under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.  

The lack of female scientists is seen as a major economic problem by the Government, which has tried to boost numbers with several initiatives. But despite this, public perception often furthers the myth that women cannot engage with STEM subjects because of innate biological deficits. 

Speaking at the British Science Association’s press launch for the upcoming British Science Festival, Professor Gina Rippon told delegates that mainstream opinion on the reasons for low female engagement in science ignores scientific understanding of the human brain. 

The research is aimed at emphasising that any biological explanations of gender differences need to take into account the importance of the social and cultural context in the development and maintenance of such differences.

In essence, there are very few differences between the brains of men and women – the social context is what creates the gender differences. 

The focus is not just on patterns of brain activity during problem-solving, but also on demonstrating that how a problem is presented, and to whom, can affect the outcome. For example, in single sex teams, girls tend to work in quite egalitarian but competitive ways because they all want a voice and to be heard, while boys are more likely to work co-operatively with each other once they have accepted a leadership hierarchy within a team. 

Professor Gina Rippon said: “We really cannot afford to sit back and accept the ‘essentialist’ view that girls are not going to be interested in science subjects because of some ‘brain deficiency’. We need more trained scientists and engineers but 50% of our pool of talent is not engaging. People who could study these subjects or do these jobs are choosing not to. This must not be explained away by misguided and misleading explanations in terms of unchangeable biological characteristics, or references to ‘the natural order of things.’ 

She added: “The focus should not just be on ‘fixing the girls’ but also on ‘fixing the science’. If STEM subjects were commercial products or an item in an election manifesto, then the marketing gurus would be pulling out all the stops to make the products more accessible, more attractive, more ‘choosable’ – not blaming the consumers.” 

Gina will be presenting her findings at the British Science Festival on Sunday 7 September at the University of Birmingham. 

The Festival will take place from 6-11 September in Birmingham, and provides an opportunity to meet researchers face-to-face and discuss the latest science, technology and engineering.

Space for some events is limited, so book now to reserve your place at www.britishsciencefestival.org or call 08456 807 207 for more information. 

ENDS   

For further media information, please contact Jonathan Garbett, Aston University Communications on 0121 204 4552 or j.garbett@aston.ac.uk    

Notes for editors 

1.      About the British Science Festival

The British Science Festival is one of Europe’s largest science festivals and regularly attracts over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and speakers to discuss the latest developments in science with the public. Over 50,000 visitors attend the talks, discussions and workshops. Registration is free for journalists, and gets you access to hundreds of free events. To register, please click here. The Festival takes place at a different location each year and was last held in Birmingham in 2010. The 2014 Festival will take place from 6 - 11 September hosted by the University of Birmingham. For further information, visit www.britishsciencefestival.org @BritishSciFest #BSF14  

2.     About the British Science Association

The British Science Association (BSA) believes that science should be part of – rather than set apart from – society and culture, and is owned by the wider community. Our programmes encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to engage with science, become ambassadors for science, and ultimately to be empowered to challenge and influence British science - whether they work in science or not. 

Established in 1831, the BSA is a registered charity that organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science & Engineering Week, the annual British Science Festival, regional and local events, the CREST Awards and other programmes for young people in schools and colleges. The BSA also organises specific activities for professional science communicators, including a specialist conference and training. For more information, please visit www.britishscienceassociation.org