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University of Basel

“The focus should be on the individual, not on their gender.”

Interview: Samanta Siegfried

How gender-equal is teaching at Swiss schools? Not yet fully, according to a recent study. Educational researcher Elena Makarova also believes that plenty more work is required to establish gender equality in the working world.

Elena Makarova (Image: University of Basel, Basile Bornand)
Elena Makarova (Image: University of Basel, Basile Bornand)

UNI NOVA: Professor Makarova, what do you remember of your own math lessons?

ELENA MAKAROVA: I should start by saying that I went to school in the former Soviet Union. Math and science were highly significant in ensuring the supremacy of the country in the Cold War. Math was strongly emphasized throughout my schooling and we also had lessons in IT and basic programming. I remember being taught by male and female teachers. I enjoyed math and science and always earned good grades. No distinction was made between boys and girls.

UNI NOVA: It sounds like your experience was very different to that of many Swiss women…

MAKAROVA: Yes, compared with Switzerland, the USSR had a coeducational school system much earlier with lessons that involved both sexes equally. In Switzerland, girls used to be sent off to study home economics and were sometimes excluded from science lessons.

UNI NOVA: Is that why we still can’t shake the assumption that boys are better at math than girls?

MAKAROVA: When PISA test results are followed by headlines like “Girls are scared of math”, it perpetuates this assumption linking differences between students to their biological sex, usually unconsciously. Yet, various studies show that this explanation is far too simplistic. In their early school years, girls are often just as good at math as boys, or even better, and don’t lose this advantage until later on. It has also been proven that differences in performance can be balanced out through targeted intervention: For example, one study showed that, after a brief phase of training, girls achieve the same level of spatial attention and mental rotation as boys, who have an initial advantage. This confirms the supposition that gender-specific differences are due to socialization rather than evolutionary biology.

UNI NOVA: So we’re brought up that way?

MAKAROVA: Socialization works on the assumption that differences develop through experience. These experiences are, in turn, closely linked with social expectations imposed by our familial and social environment. Specifically, children notice at an early stage whether they are considered to have a talent for science. This is internalized and affects how they assess their own skills, the topics that interest them, and whether they enjoy the subject. There is also plenty of evidence that motivation plays a significant role in performance. Although most people are born with one unambiguous biological sex, we learn what it means to express being man or woman from parents, siblinguislings and friends, but also at school, a core sociocultural environment.

UNI NOVA: In one of your latest projects, you examine gender equality in school science books at secondary level II. What were your key findings?

MAKAROVA: For one thing, we identified a linguistic disparity. The teaching materials analyzed feature practically no female protagonists and masculine is used almost exclusively as the generic form; the German uses words such as “Physiker” (male physicist) and “Naturwissenschaftler” (male scientist) not only to describe a singular protagonist but also as the plural, physicists. However, studies show that the generic masculine form triggers stronger mental representations of men than if the male and female nouns are used (e.g. “Physiker und Physikerinnen”), or alternatively a capital I (“PhysikerInnen”) or a slash (Physiker/innen). Even if the materials state explicitly that the masculine form is intended to represent all genders, women may be intended, but they are not represented. Language is personification! And the word “Physiker” is the personification of the male gender. Another study, which examined whether gender-neutral language is clunky, showed that it does not impede readability or comprehension of a text. To be honest, I’m astonished that we still need to discuss whether female and male protagonists should be represented equally in language.

UNI NOVA: Did you find other disparities in the teaching materials?

MAKAROVA: Yes, there was also a lack of contemporary female role models. Marie Curie appeared most often, and Lise Meitner got the occasional mention. But that’s it. Otherwise, the women shown were predominantly young women practicing a hobby, but not an occupation. In contrast, the men depicted were older and shown to have prestigious jobs such as scientists. To this day, teaching materials perpetuate the stereotypical image of science as a male domain. This is simply outdated. The problem is that when teaching materials are revised, the focus is usually on the subject content. But if we look at their socialization effect, they are maintaining 1960s' gender roles. There’s a lot of work to be done.

UNI NOVA: So why haven’t these aspects of teaching materials been overhauled?

MAKAROVA: Partly due to a lack of awareness. And it will certainly take considerable effort. In a recent project supported by the Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality, I worked with two authors to revise their physics textbook. It involved a huge amount of work. There were numerous stipulations: The content had to adhere to the school curriculum, fit in with the topics of the example tasks, and not exceed a particular length. And it wasn’t just about showing more female scientists, but about generally incorporating more contemporary contexts and role models within the sciences – including men and scientific teams working and performing research today. In this case, the publisher covered the purely linguistic revisions, something not all publishers are willing to do.

UNI NOVA: As well as offering suitable material, teachers can surely also make an impact in the way they design their lessons. What do you advise your students to do?

MAKAROVA: Yes, the instructional design of a lesson is important. In my seminar on the importance of gender in the socialization and education process, I like to let my students uncover their own, unconscious biases; for example, I use the Implicit Association Test, which was developed at Harvard and tests biases against various social categories that can be linked with stereotypes, such as gender, age, and ethnicity. It’s not about saying “Ha, caught you, you’re biased!” but about showing that our biases are often unconscious in nature. We can then move on to consider how these biases might influence the teaching process. Feedback is one example of this: Studies have shown that teachers tend to praise girls for their careful work, such as their beautiful handwriting, and boys for their subject knowledge. The way in which feedback is given has a huge influence on how students see themselves.

UNI NOVA: I assume, though, that many things happen before they start school. What role do you think parents need to play?

MAKAROVA: Of course, attributing characteristics to a specific gender, and thus to associated gender roles, starts at birth. Parents often adapt the way they dress or play with their child according to its sex. Outside the family, for example in careers guidance, widespread terms like “fireman” and “cleaning lady” signal that certain professions are only suited to one gender. I would therefore also advise parents to expose their own biases and try to introduce their children to a variety of areas and experiences, whatever their gender.

UNI NOVA: So I should send my son to ballet classes?

MAKAROVA: If he wants to go then yes, of course! Encouraging an individual’s potential talents and interests should not depend on their sex. But it isn’t easy to go against shared social preconceptions and stereotypes ascribed to a particular gender category. We are all constantly reproducing gender differences as part of the “doing-gender process”.

UNI NOVA: What does that mean?

MAKAROVA: If you behave contrary to society’s expectations of your gender category, you can expect sanctions. These can be very subtle; you might be told that “you play soccer well for a girl”. The subliminal message is that you will never be as good as a boy because, as a female, you do not have the potential to play soccer. This might discourage a girl from developing her interest in the sport. Society and its structure need to change in order to modify the gender preconceptions they disseminate.

UNI NOVA: What are the problems involved?

MAKAROVA: The figures show that even women who study a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) rarely choose a career in the field after graduating. And even if they do, they are far more likely to leave than men. This is partly due to family policies. Just think about the UNICEF study published this summer, which showed Switzerland to be the least family-friendly country in Europe. There is no paternity leave, maternity leave is too short, childcare is too expensive, and so on. Studies show that part-time positions can often be found in “female professions” such as nursing/caring, social care, and education, but definitely not in STEM areas, where it is much more difficult to balance family and work. And so we find ourselves in a vicious circle: Women are overrepresented in stereotypically female part-time jobs, so we ascribe them the characteristics that these jobs require. We say that women are more suited to these jobs. Structural influences are coupled with biological sex, perpetuating biases.

UNI NOVA: So far we have only discussed the negative impact on women. But what about men? They are also subject to certain gender-based expectations.

MAKAROVA: If you behave contrary to society’s expectations of your gender category, you can expect sanctions. These can be very subtle; you might be told that “you play soccer well for a girl”. The subliminal message is that you will never be as good as a boy because, as a female, you do not have the potential to play soccer. This might discourage a girl from developing her interest in the sport. Society and its structure need to change in order to modify the gender preconceptions they disseminate.

UNI NOVA: What are the problems involved?

MAKAROVA: The figures show that even women who study a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) rarely choose a career in the field after graduating. And even if they do, they are far more likely to leave than men. This is partly due to family policies. Just think about the UNICEF study published this summer, which showed Switzerland to be the least family-friendly country in Europe. There is no paternity leave, maternity leave is too short, childcare is too expensive, and so on. Studies show that part-time positions can often be found in “female professions” such as nursing/caring, social care, and education, but definitely not in STEM areas, where it is much more difficult to balance family and work. And so we find ourselves in a vicious circle: Women are overrepresented in stereotypically female part-time jobs, so we ascribe them the characteristics that these jobs require. We say that women are more suited to these jobs. Structural influences are coupled with biological sex, perpetuating biases.

UNI NOVA: So far we have only discussed the negative impact on women. But what about men? They are also subject to certain gender-based expectations

MAKAROVA: The research projects I have conducted so far have paid less attention to the lack of men in social and educational professions. While we’re talking about it, it’s interesting to note that studies have shown that men in a genderatypical working environment tend to be admired and regarded as highly skilled, while women in male-dominated occupations often experience discrimination. Clearly, egalitarian conditions can only be achieved if preconceptions about both genders change. But that won’t be easy if we continue to think in terms of binary gender categories.

UNI NOVA: What do you mean?

MAKAROVA: I’ll give you an example. Students frequently ask me “what about if we simply reverse the situation and have only women working in IT and only men working in the care sector, for instance?” This is exactly what I don’t mean. I mean that young people should not choose their careers based on what they consider to be typically female or male, even if they do it unconsciously. They should all be able to choose a career that reflects their personal interests. From birth onward, the focus should be on the individual, not on ascribing them to a gender. 


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