An Approach to Improving Representation of Women in Science Lessons

If you look in the index of a science textbook, you are unlikely to find many women listed. When you do, it is common for these scientists to be working somewhat away from the mainstream. In a crowded curriculum, the contributions from these women often don’t make it into the classroom.

Women’s role in current science is far more prominent, but cutting edge science also doesn’t make it onto the curriculum.

There is a tacit agreement in the curriculum that the ideas of science are more important than the people who discovered them: the people are history, the content is science. However, we have all heard of Newton and Galileo, Darwin and Mendeleev. Fewer of us have heard of Franklin, Hodgkin or Bell Burnett. Why is this important?

Pupils could achieve highly in most science exams without knowing the name of a single scientist, modern or historical, male or female. You need to consider the aims of science teaching to decide whether this is an issue. If we want pupils to see themselves (and be seen) in the curriculum, then we need to show them people. If we want pupils to consider a career in the sciences, then we need to show ‘people like them’ with successful careers in the sciences.

Our approach at Paradigm Trust to improving the representation of women in science lessons is to ‘usualise‘ – without drawing attention to the fact that the scientist is a woman, we show women in science as often as possible.

Historical Women Scientists

Here is an example of a short ‘hook’ to a lesson. This sequence would typically take less than 5 minutes.

Example #1

Pupils read the introduction slide. The teacher may want to discuss the science briefly. Unless a pupil raises it, we don’t mention her gender specifically.
A useful bit of context. We tend to use the timeline to point out other historic events around the time (the Tudors and Shakespeare make for good reference points).
Following the short description of the scientist’s contribution, pupils predict what the main part of the lesson will be about.

Example #2

Contemporary Scientists

We use a similar approach to usualising women scientists based on excellent work by NUSTEM from the University of Northumbria.

These slides are spaced out through the unit, typically used briefly (2-3 minutes) between the starter and the main part of the lesson.


These slides help address some issues, but they are not a solution. The big challenge is to weave equality throughout the lesson while still teaching the assessed curriculum. It is not in our students’ best interests to show them opportunities but not prepare them adequately for the exams they need to achieve their goals.

We have also supported our teachers to challenge pupils when comments or class materials present a biased or unbalanced view of science and scientists. For example, when the following timeline is used, we encourage teachers to pause the lesson for a short discussion: “Where are all the women?”

History of Astronomy Timeline

It doesn’t take long and we are getting better at spotting and challenging potential misconceptions and prejudices as they arise.

Evidence of the effectiveness of small interventions like these is underway (e.g. see the NUSTEM project from the University of Northumbria). Hopefully we’ll see an impact on the career choices of young women into the sciences.

One last point – we were talking about the under-representation of women and people with protected characteristics back in the mid 90s when I studies for my PGCE. It isn’t obvious that we’ve made much progress. If I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that progress towards equality requires constant vigilance and determination by teachers and school leaders. A big push every decade or so is not enough.

I owe thanks for the support with the development of our approach to many individuals, but especially to Dr Carole Davenport of Northumbria University and Fran Goodship of Paradigm Trust.

I welcome your comments and feedback.


1 Comment

  1. Lots of Astro-women. There were others in other fields eg Surface (film) Sci. eg
    Agnes Pockels (1862-1935); Katharine Blodgett, of Langmuir-Blodgett Film fame. The latter invented anti-reflective coatings. (The latter is not to be confused with another famous Katharine Blodgett who ended high up in NIST – the US standards body)

    More info in: Langmuir-Blodgett Films (ed Gareth Roberts) 1990 and subsequent “updates” by MC Petty eg Molecular Electronics: From Principles to Practice 2008. The former has a good Historical Introduction in chapter 1 available on Google Books.

    Liked by 1 person

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