30 Sep 2023 Attractions Management Handbook

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Attractions Management Handbook - Attracting Girls to Science


Attracting Girls to Science

Science centres are increasingly trying to engage teenagers in STEM with more proactively gender-inclusive approaches, but are they doing enough?

Experiments successfully attract young people to visit Science Centre AHHAA in Estonia ©AHHAA
The Science It’s A Girl Thing! campaign aimed to convince girls to pursue STEM careers ©European Union, 2012
Discover the world for yourself at NEMO ©NEMO SCIENCE MUSEUM
Centrum Nauki EXPERYMENT in Poland encourages teenagers to take up STEM careers ©Centrum Nauki EXPERYMENT
Science needs to be communicated to young people in a more gender-inclusive way ©Centrum Nauki EXPERYMENT
Teenagers actively engage with a guide at Bloomfield Science Museum in Israel ©Bloomfield Science Museum JERUSALEM

When it comes to attracting young people to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) formal education cannot do it all. So informal education organisations such as science centres and museums have been playing a key role in sparking the interest of this new generation for STEM studies – and that of girls in particular.

Despite these efforts, girls are still under-represented in science study programmes and women are less likely than their counterparts to embrace scientific careers. It is time to look back at the different approaches taken so far to attract girls to science and to re-think our model, working towards innovative ways of achieving more gender-inclusive science engagement.

The approach taken to communicating science and to engaging girls into STEM careers has changed over time, as illustrated by an analysis of EU-funded science education projects. This feature offers a perspective on these past approaches and how they’ve changed. It’s based on the Criteria for Gender Inclusion report produced by Marianne Achiam and Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard for the new EU-funded project Hypatia.

Hypatia has helped to develop innovative communication strategies and activities that are more gender inclusive by considering every individual to be different, and that gender is a social construct and not the result of a biological sex. Although the arguments presented are related to STEM, they should be taken as a provocation to rethink the way we shape gender-diverse activities in any other field.

STEM the gendering
We’ve long assumed science to be a gender-neutral practice. However, research shows that many STEM subjects are constructed and enacted in terms of descriptors such as rational, technical, hard and independent; characteristics often connected to masculinity. This implies that individuals (female or male) who do not identify with such characteristics are not able to see themselves in STEM professions. In formal and informal education contexts, STEM is often gendered in this way as well, reflecting explicit or implicit assumptions about what constitutes a standard student, the so-called ‘implied student’, or in the case of science centres and museums, the ‘implied visitor’ – generally a boy or man.

Gender vs biological sex
Gender has long been assumed to be synonymous with biological sex. Recent research suggests differently. Rather than the simple translation of biological difference, gender should be approached as a complex category that individuals make themselves recognisable through and perform in various ways. Gender is not only culturally embedded, but also performed by the individual. Individuals adapt to the cultural contexts they participate in, and so do not position themselves in the same way across different arenas.

An example of performance gender is given by educational pyschologist Dorte Marie Søndergaard who describes how some female students downplay their femininity by dressing in neutral clothing to emphasise their competence within their studies’ masculine-gendered topics.

Fill the ‘GAPP’: equality and difference feminism
How has gender been tackled over time within informal education? Previous European projects gave us some hints to this. GAPP, TWIST and Science It’s A Girl Thing all addressed the issue of STEM and gender, albeit in very different ways.

The 2007-2008 GAPP project (Gender Awareness Participation Process: Differences in the choices of science careers) stated: “Meeting scientists who are women and sometimes mothers could have an impact on girls who otherwise would not have chosen a career in science and technology, thinking that it would not allow them to lead a career and a family/social life at the same time.”

By assuming that girls and boys are essentially equal in their approach to science, and that gender inclusion therefore entails removing external obstacles to girls’ participation in science, GAPP employs an equality feminism approach, wherein men and women are equal in terms of their ability to reason and achieve goals both at work and at home.

However, GAPP also assumed that girls and boys are fundamentally different in their approach to learning – difference feminism – by asserting that there are differences between men and women, and that they therefore should not be considered equals. It argues for gender-specific approaches based on what is assumed to be intrinsic gender differences. According to the GAPP report, “The ideas that science is only for excellent students and nerds and that research topics are too specific and not related to social aspects are to be demystified; role models are to be used, visiting and interacting with scientists and female scientists in particular”.

The Science: It’s A Girl Thing (2012-2015) campaign launched by the EC aimed to convince 13-18-year-old girls to pursue careers in science. It is clearly underpinned by difference feminism, because it assumes that women and girls have particular characteristics perceived as ‘feminine/female’, and that these characteristics should be recognised and acknowledged. The website (http//science-girlthing.eu) portrays science as an undertaking that makes a difference by improving lives, counteracting disease or protecting the environment; problems emphasising the ‘feminine’ extremes of the science spectrum.

The postmodern feminism TWIST
Equality feminism: men and women are equal in terms of their ability to reason and achieve goals in both the work and home front. Equality feminists recommend a strict equalitarian treatment of genders.

Difference feminism: there are differences between men and women, so they should not be considered equals. Gender-specific approaches should be based on what is assumed to be intrinsic differences between genders.

Postmodern feminism: there is not one unique, absolute definition for gender. It is a discursive construction and performance rather than a biological fact. Gender will be “performed” in different ways according to the situation.

Equality & difference drawbacks
There is evidence that societal and cultural conditions represent obstacles to women’s participation in science, meaning that equality feminism does have merit. However, research shows that removing external barriers to women’s participation does not completely close the gender gap. Thus, additional measures are needed.

The issue of the difference feminism approach of adjusting science subjects to what are thought to be typical girls’ interests, as exemplified in the projects GAPP, TWIST and Science: It’s A Girl Thing!, is that it may contribute to the cementation of the stereotypical gender identities the initiative was intended to overcome. This means that female-friendly approaches to science education give girls the choice of opting out or performing gender in the specific way sanctioned by scientific culture. Either choice serves to maintain, not erase, stereotypical gender identities.

The difference feminism argument presented in TWIST (i.e. biological differences between girls and boys mean they learn in different ways) is coming under increasing scrutiny. Research shows that the ‘essential, hardwired differences’ between the two sexes may be a majority opinion rather than a scientific fact, and therefore it cannot be taken for granted that learners have the same preferences and requirements simply because they have the same biological sex.

Rising postmodern feminism
A paradigm shift started with TWIST, which shows aspects of both difference and postmodern feminism. Postmodern feminism argues that capabilities, interests, personalities and aspirations vary as widely within biological sex groups (girls and boys) as between the groups – for any given variable, we’re as likely to find similarities between a girl and a boy as between two girls or two boys.

TWIST states that although there are clear differences between boys and girls, “there will always be exceptions. Every child is different. Variations in the way children learn are found not only between the genders, but also within them”. Thus, TWIST appears to challenge the notion that female and male learners are united, respectively, by biological sex.

Hypatia: celebrating differences
Hypatia, the latest EU-funded gender and STEM project (2015-18), is aligned with this theory that every child is different both within and outwith their gender. For this project, gender is understood as a social construct and not as the result of a biological sex. So all of its communication strategy and activities will continue to be more gender inclusive, considering each individual to be different.

Hypatia aims to bring together science centres and museums, schools, institutions and industry with gender experts and teenagers. It intends to reach diverse audiences and fulfill its most important goal: getting girls’ minds and hearts tuned in to science.

Balancing out for the future
To change youths’ access to science in a manner that transcends the ways they perform gender we must understand how the STEM cultures include specific ways of constructing and enacting gender while excluding others. This entails not only regarding male-dominated sciences and the girls and women within them, but also regarding more feminised sciences and the boys and men in them.

Science education initiatives based on postmodern feminist like Hypatia would encourage all learners, irrespective of biological sex, to value their own experiences and interests and reflect on their relevance for science learning. This practice may also help to establish an increased awareness of all marginalised groups of learners, irrespective of sex.

Hypatia Hubs
NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is coordinating the Hypatia project, which comprises fourteen hubs. Hypatia project partners include the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci; University of Copenhagen; Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem; Universcience; Experimentarium; Ecsite; L’Oreal Foundation; PPG Industries and BureauQ. ?

Stem the stereotyping
Three Hypatia partners tell us how they’re improving communications with young people and creating more inspirational, inclusive and engaging exhibitions


Sheena Laursen
Sheena Laursen Experimentarium København, Denmark

Gender Inclusive Exhibitions

When we touch on gender we are also addressing our target group. And when we touch on inclusion we are addressing the fact that we strive to be a science centre that reaches out to families, school groups and adults and not just one type of visitor. We have three values – ‘welcoming’, ‘whimsical’ and ‘focused’ – and inclusion fits perfectly under this umbrella.

”We are good at making exhibitions and meeting the needs of our users.” This is what we often hear from exhibition developers, so how can gender insight add and inspire us – and ultimately our products? After working on gender and creating gender-inclusive activities, we’ve started to look at our exhibitions.

We define gender as a ‘gender spectrum’, where there are infinite ways that people can fit into such a spectrum. And we want to move away from a ‘tick the box’ way of thinking for making sure that girls and boys want to engage and do engage with our exhibits and activities. So how is this done and how do we avoid taking things for granted? On top of trying to create as differentiated a science communication as possible, we meet up with the target group through focus groups, co-creation workshops and mock-up tests.

We are also inspired by design recommendations developed by Exploratorium in San Francisco where they conducted a project called EDGE (Exhibit Design for Girls Engagement). They followed 500 girls and looked at four measures of engagement: whether they used the exhibits; if they went back; if they had an exploratory style; and how much time they spent. They tested 100 design attributes that may work for girls and narrowed it down to 10. As they aren’t yet published, I’ll recommend that you look out for the results; none will suggest designing with stereotypical ‘girly’ attributes. Including gender early on in your exhibit design offers a huge potential and aspires to create a ever higher level of engagement with your visitors. ?

"Including gender early on in your exhibit design offers a huge potential and aspires to create a ever higher level of engagement"


Meeting up with target groups promotes Experimentarium

Stem the stereotyping
Committing to Best-Practice Charters


Marie-Agnès Bernardis
Marie-Agnès Bernardis Universcience Paris, France

Universcience has a long-standing commitment to promote gender equality and to take gender into consideration in its exhibitions and public offering. As part of this, in 2014 Universcience signed the “Universcience Charter for Gender Equality in Science and Technology” with the Ministry of Culture & Communication, Ministry of Women Rights and the Ministry for Higher Education & Research in France – the first charter to be signed by a scientific and cultural institution.

It gives recommendations to promote a global policy to achieve gender equality between men and women and to fight stereotyping: avoiding conveying gender stereotypes or making sexist statements; when interacting with the public, ensuring a balanced participation of girls and boys, women and men; to take into account gender in all themes and programmes; giving women scientists and experts the visibility they deserve in all exhibitions; and creating scientific committees that achieve or strive for parity among others.

Last year, Universcience made a new step to encourage gender equality by signing the “Convention for Public Communication Without Gender Stereotypes” with the High Council for Equality to achieve a gender-inclusive communication of STEM. ?


Universcience considers gender when deciding on exhibitions and public offering

Stem the stereotyping
Acting as a Hub


Meie Van Laar
Meie Van Laar NEMO Science museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Discover the world for yourself: that’s NEMO’s philosophy. Marvel at the world around you, awaken your curiosity and develop your own ideas about how the world works. This is the message we share with every person that comes through our doors and for everyone who experiences our activities. In 2016 NEMO is trying to take this message ‘for every person’ to a different level. The museum is aiming to explore new ways of working with different stakeholders and trying out new methods of involving its public in the creation of its programmes.

The Hypatia project creates a golden opportunity for this. In May, NEMO launched the Hypatia Hub – a dynamic group of industry representatives, policymakers, gender experts, professionals of formal and informal education and teenagers meeting at NEMO and working together for the next three years. In other European projects such as TWIST and GAPP, NEMO has gained a lot of expertise in gender and science, and especially in combining teacher training development programmes with materials.

With the Hypatia project a new opportunity has been born to make a bigger impact and increased collaboration with different stakeholders. Combining different expertise, we’ll reach teenagers via the industry, our museums, schools and their peers. We will develop activities together for schools, museums and industry settings to inspire young people, especially girls, to follow STEM-related careers. We will try our best to open up our eyes and hearts, let our stereotypes go and inspire and be inspired by all the groups we will be working with! ?

"We’ll develop activities for schools, museums and industry settings"


Carmen Fenollosa, Marianne Achiam & Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard

Carmen Fenollosa, Project Manager, European Network of Science Centres and Museums (Ecsite)

Marianne Achiam, Associate Professor, Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen

Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard, Assistant Professor, Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen

Adapted by Carmen Fenollosa from a report by Marianne Achiam and Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard.

Originally published in Attractions Handbook 2016 edition

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