Young Women and Science: The Perceptions and Images of Science among Adolescents

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The presence of women in technical-scientific research and their career opportunities are issues high on the agenda of national and international institutions in regard to research and training policies. The persisting difficulties encountered by women in achieving top positions in the world of research and innovation, the causes of those difficulties, and their possible remedies have for some time been a matter of debate among experts and in public opinion. And the debate has recently been inflamed by controversial statements such as that some months ago by the President of Harvard University, who claimed that women have ‘less aptitude’ for technical and scientific subjects.
The difficulties of women in science and technology have frequently been linked to differences in the perception of the scientific disciplines formed at a young age during socialization and schooling. It is therefore of particular interest to investigate the attitudes of children in an age range – between 15 and 19 years old – considered critical to future educational choices.

The most recent survey by the Science and Society Observatory of Observa – Science in Society and presented during the presentation of the National Observatory on Women Health (Osservatorio Nazionale sulla Salute della Donna, O.N.Da.) has found that perceptions of unequal opportunities in technical-scientific studies and career opportunities are not yet particularly structured in this age group.
A first stereotype contradicted is that males are better suited to the study of science. The majority of the adolescents interviewed, in fact, rejected the idea that women are less able than men at scientific subjects. Moreover, it was girls who objected more strongly than boys to this perception: a total of 61% among the former against 49% among the latter. This attitude was confirmed by the tendency among both boys and girls to say that if they had children, they would encourage them to study a scientific subject at university regardless of gender: almost two-thirds of each group expressed this opinion.

The second aspect disputed by the younger generation is the predominant role of schooling in the reproduction and reinforcement of gender differences. Only a small – though not negligible – proportion of the adolescents interviewed believed that the school tended to orient males and females differently in regard to scientific subjects. More than three-quarters of the sample were of the opposite opinion, and they were especially critical of the idea that the school system encourages males more than females to study the sciences.
The survey refutes another widespread prejudice, namely that males have greater technological competence. It was observed, in fact, that boys and girls behaved in identical manner when confronted with a new computer or a new mobile phone: the first thing that 59% of the males and 55% of the females did with a new technological item was to switch it on to see how it worked. Only one-fifth of the interviewees preferred to read the instructions before performing any further action, and fewer than one out ten asked friends for help.

Despite these attitudes, however, young people aged between 15 and 19 do not appear fully convinced that vocational training courses are able to dispel gender differences. Indeed, they are aware of a number of problematic issues. To be noted is that still predominant is the belief that some academic subjects are more ‘male’ (chemistry, physics, engineering, economics) or more ‘female (‘languages, philosophy, biology). In other words, the adolescents of today agree that the sciences and the humanities require aptitudes which differ between males and females, and that each gender is better suited to the study of certain disciplines. Exceptions are mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and music: subjects for which young people are largely convinced that the two genders have the same aptitudes.
A further two aspects suggest that young people recognize the existence of gender inequalities in the technical-scientific domain. On the one hand, more than two girl interviewees in every three (and more than one boy interviewee in every two) agree with the strong assertion that ‘the word of science is dominated by males’. On the other, more than four interviewees in every ten – and once again without significant differences of opinion between males and females – were extremely doubtful that a scientific career can be reconciled with child care. These two positions should not be underestimated, because they show that the younger generation, males included, are well aware of the difficulties encountered by women in their pursuit of scientific careers.

These findings offer useful suggestions for policy-makers. Firstly, the presence of still relatively unstructured perceptions about the inequality of opportunity between males and females in technical-scientific studies and occupations indicates that there is scope for communication and awareness-raising initiatives in schools. Secondly, the fact that the younger generation, and girls in particular, refuse to regard scientific subjects as a male prerogative (contrary to the stereotype that women have a lesser aptitude for science) should stimulate political decision-makers and public institutions to increase their efforts to furnish adequate training and occupational opportunities for girls. Finally, in light of the concerns expressed in Italy and Europe about declining interest among young people in scientific subjects, to be stressed is the need for greater attention to (and closer study of) the dynamics and factors responsible for current perceptions of science and scientific careers, so that greater interest can be fostered among adolescents – especially female – in the sciences.

This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 8h of march, 2006.

The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 449 subjects, representing the Italian population aged between 15 and 19.