“Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous”: primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations

Louise Archer et al in Pedagogy, Culture and Society 21:1 (2013) pp.171-194

Archer et al investigate discourses surrounding popular femininity and the importance of social background and social capital in career aspirations and educational or vocational attainment, in relation to science and STEM aspirations. The perception that science is a field for white, middle class males seems to be held and reflected through the lack of girls, particularly working class and ethnic minority girls, aspiring to scientific careers or STEM subjects.

This paper is one of a series linked to a five-year longitudinal study focussing on the science aspirations and careers choices of children aged 10 to 14 years old, as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME). This particular paper details the results of Phase One which involved a survey of 9,000 children aged 10 and 11 (Year 6 pupils) and interviews with 92 children and 78 parents, focusing particularly on girls who did not hold science aspirations. These children will be surveyed and interviewed in subsequent years to understand how ideas and attitudes change over time.

Despite more than 70% of those surveyed reporting that they liked science or had positive views of science, only 63% of boys and 37% of girls could be categorised as ‘science keen’ (scoring highly on all five science aspiration questions). The majority of these ‘science keen’ girls were middle class with high or very high levels of cultural capital. For the girls who considered science aspirations as ‘unthinkable’, this was largely due to their own constructions of desirable femininity or how they saw themselves as learners in terms of ability. The aspirations these girls cited either fell into the categories of ‘nurturing’ or ‘glamorous’ jobs.

The conclusions to be drawn from both the survey and the interviews are that girls who do not have science aspirations as a chosen career are more influenced by understandings of what they were already good at, and skills which they were developing through everyday activities. Over 81% of respondents reported that they associated science aspirations with ‘cleverness’. Interestingly, gender differences persist in attitudes despite there not being significant gender differences in academic achievement in science subjects: this suggests that lack of female interest in pursuing science is not due to lack of ability, but lack of will. The authors suggest that a wider range of interlinking ‘social, cultural and structural factors’ influence girls’ avoidance of STEM. Instead, girls in this study are more influenced by dominant notions of science as ‘masculine’ and highly academic and thus ‘not for me’: this thinking is highly influenced by popular theories of identity in young girls.

Furthermore, perceptions seem to be exacerbated by social inequalities. The authors suggest that the dichotomous split between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ aspirations reflect popular discourse as working class pupils traditionally identify with practical or vocational subjects. The fact that science subjects are understood as academic may reflect the fewer working class girls aspiring to scientific careers. Social capital is cited as another important, related factor in working class girls understanding science as neither desirable nor attainable for them.

This paper will be followed by results of further surveys and interviews as part of the longitudinal study.

‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’: primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations