A recent study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology found that using stereotypically feminine examples gets girls more interest in science:

After examining a wide array of science textbooks, University of Luxembourg educational researcherSylvie Kerger concluded that most present real-world examples are “embedded in masculine contexts.” But wrapping scientific subjects — at least initially — around female-friendly topics could kindle interest in scientific fields under-populated by women, Kerger says. Studies have shown that interest counts more than ability toward choosing a major or a career.

[…]Kerger gave 294 eighth- and ninth-grade boys and girls questionnaires asking them whether they would like to study biology, physics, information technology or statistics the following year. Instead of naming these subjects, the questionnaire presented each science through topics found in previous studies to be either male- or female-friendly. “How does a laser read a CD?” was a masculine way to ask about physics, while “how is a laser used in cosmetic surgery?” addressed stereotypical girls’ concerns.

The youngsters rated their interest on a scale from one (not interesting at all) to five (very interesting). Presenting these sciences in a feminine way increased girls’ interest in physics about a half-point, in information technology more than 0.75 of a point and in statistics more than a full point.

But the male-versus-female presentations didn’t affect girls’ interest in biology. (“Watch blood coagulate from a small wound,” appealed to them as much as “reflect on how skin tanning comes about in the summer.”)

“Girls are already very interested” in that science, even when presented in a male-friendly way, says Kerger.

Increasing the girl-friendly content had a predictable effect on boys’ interest. When researchers couched information technology as learning “how to order clothes over the Internet” rather than figuring out “how the inside of the computer is structured,” boys’ interest dampened in that science.

Faced with this zero-sum result, Kerger and her colleagues don’t argue for single-sex classes. This is a cross section, so while some girls aren’t interested in stereotypically feminine topics, they point out, some boys are. The reverse also holds true. So they recommend teachers offer a choice among several modules dealing with the same scientific concepts wrapped around various male- and female-friendly topics.

tl;dr making stereotypically girly science examples increased interest from girls, but decreased interest in boys

I have a couple of concerns before we automatically insert hyperfeminine examples into science textbooks. For one thing, how did they determine that some of these standard examples are “masculine?” What’s masculine about reading CDs or blot clotting? Am I just one of those outliers for finding these things way more interesting?

It seems the real problem is that boys and girls are told from an early age what they’re allowed to be interested in because of their gender. That’s what we should be fighting. We need to destroy the notion that girls can only like science if it’s about makeup and that boys can only like science if it’s about blowing things up. Pandering to these stereotypes only perpetuates the problem.

But on the flip side, that doesn’t mean we have to avoid feminine examples in text books. We shouldn’t leave out the science of skin tanning because it seems too girly – it’s still a relevant and interesting biological question. There’s nothing inherently wrong with femininity, so it shouldn’t be excluded.

I can understand the practical desire to get more girls interested in science, but overall this just rubs me the wrong way. Instead of trying to get them with girly things when they’re almost in high school, why not cultivate a gender neutral interest when they’re even younger? If we fight stereotypes when they’re little, it helps both science and equality.

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