A Female Friendly Science Classroom

A Female Friendly Science Classroom


Recently, I was asked to update an article I wrote for Research Matters which was published in 1988. It reviewed what we knew then about classroom practices that lead to differential treatment of males and females. It also suggested ways in which teachers could create a more equitable and female friendly classroom. As I thought about writing an update, I asked myself what had changed? Are classrooms more equitable now than they were almost ten years ago? What have we learned over the past decade about teaching that creates a female friendly science classroom?

What Has Changed?

The answer to this question depends upon whether you are the kind of person who thinks the glass is half full or half empty. When we think about the ideal, the answer to the question of what has changed is not much. However, when we look at the changes in terms of the way we think about the issues, levels of awareness, successful interventions and research, the answer is quite a bit.

For example, the title of my 1988 article was Teaching For Gender Differences. Now, I have chosen to title my update A Female Friendly Science Classroom which more accurately reflects current thinking. The emphasis has changed from looking for and at differences to ways to create a classroom that invites young women to participate in science. And, society as a whole, including teachers is more aware of the under representation of women in science and concerned about gender inequities. Finally, some of the teaching strategies I recommended to promote equity, such as cooperative learning groups in which roles are well defined and rotated so that everyone has an opportunity to exhibit competence in a variety of ways, have become part of most teachers' repertoire.

Are Classrooms More Female Friendly Than They Were Almost Ten Years Ago?

Myra and David Sadker have recently published a book called Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls which documents sexism at all levels of education from kindergarten through university. Studies that look specifically at science teaching tell the same story. For example, Jonathan Plucker reports in a 1996 article in The Journal of Research in Science Teaching that high school science and mathematics teachers don't link educational factors to the under representation of women in science. Furthermore, the teachers he studied thought that interventions to promote achievement and participation of their female students was a form of reverse discrimination. My own work documents that school age women who choose science, do so in spite of what happens to them in schools. These women were fortunate to have had a loved one who served as a role model and provided the encouragement and interest provoking experiences missing from classroom instruction.

The situation is not much better at the post-secondary level. The Education section of The New York Times reported on November 3, 1996 that 40% of women seniors at 88 colleges around the country feel that the glass ceiling in science is very real and limits women's advancement. So, despite increased awareness, a better understanding of what a female friendly classroom looks like and pockets of success, changes in schools have not been large enough nor widespread enough to make a significant difference.

What Have We Learned Over The Past Decade About Teaching That Creates A Female Friendly Science Classroom?

What I will discuss in this section reflects the changes in the way those of us who are concerned about increasing the participation of women in science now view the problem. We have learned that we have to do more than provide access and opportunity to do real science. We know that if we do not address the issue of science as a male domain, few young women will take advantage of the opportunities we provide and many of those who do will ultimately end up dropping out of science. We have also learned that we have to do more than teach the same content better. We have to re-evaluate the content we teach and what it means to teach well.

Science As A Male Domain

There is much less bias in textbooks and curriculum materials now than there was in 1988. Sexist language has been reduced and there are more pictures, illustrations and content of interest to girls. However, the degree of gender equity varies from publisher to publisher and all instructional materials merit close examination. We need to look beyond these surface features for masculine metaphors of dominance and competition such as the master molecule of DNA or survival of the fittest. We need to look for and question scientific explanations of phenomena, such as the active sperm fertilizing the passive egg, that mirror stereotypical gender roles in our society.

Not only do these metaphors put a masculine face on science, which discourages many young women, but they ignore other more cooperative and female friendly metaphors such as the web of life. And, some male biased explanations may be wrong or at least not the only interpretation of the data. In the case of fertilization, the evidence suggests that the egg is active and reaches out and encloses the sperm with projections from the cell.

An exploration of the research by women scientists such as Diane Fossey and Barbara McClintock that re-examines how science works, reading criticisms of science such as the writings of Rachel Carson, discussing the contributions of women Nobel Prize winners and the until now, unacknowledged work of women such as Ida Hyde, inventor of the microelectrode for research in physiology, are necessary correctives to the masculine image of science. There are a number of books such as Women of Science by Gabriele Kass-Simon and Deborah Nash and numerous web sites that are good resources for women scientists that make including women's contributions to science much easier now than in the past.

There are also many curriculum materials now being produced that speak to women's values of cooperation and helping that put a female friendly face on science. They should be used to balance the historically masculine bias in science which arose from traditional social roles and gender experiences. Furthermore, introducing a caring philosophy reinforces two of the goals for science education reform proposed by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in Science for All Americans. These are a respect for nature and fostering a concern for progress toward a safe world. Introducing affect and relations tempers the overemphasis of detachment, objectivity and values neutrality that turns many young women way from science.


Girls and young women tell me that they want to be scientists because they want to help people, animals and the world. But the traditional school curriculum makes expressing these values very difficult. In part, this difficulty arises because we teach science without any context. Courses which explore the social and technological implications of science such as environmental chemistry are often looked down upon because they are not "real chemistry" courses. Yet a chemistry course that looks at topics such as air and water pollution and brings in the contributions of Rachel Carson is more likely to interest all students as well as teach good science than one that does not. Such a course provides a context and rationale for learning facts and theories, connects science to the lives of students, considers the contribution of a woman scientist, presents opportunities to explore careers in science and suggests real-world problems that can be solved by an entire class.

All of these characteristics make science meaningful to young women. Consequently, if teachers and school districts wish to interest more women in science, they should consider redesigning existing courses or creating new courses that include contextualizing characteristics. Of course, arguments against redesigning science courses in this way have been raised. The most common is that there is already too little time to cover all of the topics traditionally taught in chemistry, biology and physics. However, this argument flies in the face of science education reform. The American Academy of Science is highly critical of the "overstuffed curriculum" and advocates the in-depth study of a few well chosen central concepts and skills.

Teaching Well

We know that whole class, teacher centered instruction with question and answer sessions, an emphasis on individual seatwork, workbook exercises and a heavy reliance on textbooks and rote learning in which knowledge is presented in isolation is not female friendly. In fact, it is not male friendly either.

On the other hand we also know that all students benefit from contextualized science emphasizing real-life problem solving and small group work. Not only do these strategies lead to a female friendly classroom, but all students are more confident of their abilities, more motivated to work and more often on task in these settings than in whole class instructional settings.

Other ways to promote female friendly instruction in science include 1) encouraging the development of hypotheses that are holistic, global, interdependent and multicausal rather than hierarchical, reductionistic and dualistic, 2) using a combination of qualitative and quantitative data gathering techniques, 3) Increasing the amount of time allowed for and varying the kinds of observations that can be made during activities, and 4) Incorporating and validating personal experiences in discussions of activities and experiments.

Needless to say, instruction of this sort implies a much different kind of assessment than we have traditionally used. Multiple choice questions, decontextualized calculations, and examples that speak only to male experiences are inadequate and should be avoided. Instead, assessment should match instruction as closely as possible or better still be embedded in instruction. That means that students may work together on projects for a group grade and large scale, real world problem solving becomes the evidence we use to judge students' competence.

Finally, good instruction means paying attention to the basics. This includes the use of gender neutral language and examples by both teachers and students. It also includes equal opportunities for all students to interact with materials, take leadership roles and speak out in class discussions. And, of course, the teacher should have high expectations for the success of all students and provide feedback that focuses on academics.

You can easily monitor these simple but important behaviors by keeping check lists of the names of students who have participated in discussions, using sign up sheets for access to materials and devising other kinds of records of who is called on or volunteers to speak so that you are sure that everyone is participating. In addition to these forms of monitoring, you can tape record your lessons or a colleague can make observations while you teach. Once these basics become automitized, the less obvious factors which contribute to a unfriendly classroom can be addressed.

by Dale R. Baker, College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ


Baker, D., & Leary, R. (1995). Letting girls speak out science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32, 3-28.

Blackboard. (1996, November 3). The New York Times, p. 11.

Kass-Simon, G., & Farnes, P. (1990). Women of Science. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Plucker, J. (1966). Secondary science and mathematics teachers and gender equity: Attitudes and attempted interventions. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33, 737-752.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1995). Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Rosser, S., & Kelly, B. (1994). From hostile exclusion to friendly inclusion: University of South Carolina system model project for the transformation of science and math teaching to reach women in varied campus settings. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 1, 29-44.