Teachers unwittingly fall into sexist traps, top scientist says

Teachers find themselves confirming sexist stereotypes without realising, one of Britain’s most senior scientists has said.

However, Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics and the master of Churchill College, Cambridge, said teachers themselves were not to blame.

“We have to actively counter what we might have been brought up to believe,” Professor Donald told TES. “If you look at the television, if you look at the marketing of toys, they all reinforce standardised ideas, and it’s very difficult to counter that.

“Primary teachers aren’t necessarily recognising the traps that they’re falling into. If you’re stressed and trying to prepare a lesson plan, probably the last thing you’re thinking about is: am I stereotyping?”

She cites an example of an exercise given to an 8-year-old girl, in which she was asked: “Think of a scientist. Does he have a family?”

“You’ve lost the battle before you’ve even begun with something like that,” Professor Donald said. “You have to work on it: ‘I mustn’t use the male pronoun.’”

Speaking before her inaugural address as president of the British Science Association, to be delivered in Bradford next week, Professor Donald has also called for girls to be given Lego or Meccano toys to play with, rather than Barbie dolls.

“Having a scientist Barbie would be helpful,” she said. “But that’s only part of it. Scientist Barbie is still a passive kind of thing. Future engineers probably want to take things to pieces and put them back together again.

“Toys should be made available to everyone to pick and choose what suits them. We could also have Ken the nurse.”

In addition, she believes it should be compulsory for all teachers to have studied maths or science after the age of 16.

“It’s very clear that there are extraordinarily low numbers of primary school teachers with maths qualifications,” she said.

“I’d like to see a virtuous circle, where everyone is exposed to more science and maths of a useful kind. It’s not calculus; it’s functional number skills. If you don’t have that confidence, how can you enthuse children about something like electricity?”

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