Could someone who understands academic stuff explain this to me please?

(99 Posts)
noblegiraffe Fri 23-Sep-16 16:40:56

The article is 'Are STEM syllabi gendered? A feminist critical discourse analysis'.

It says things like 'However, upon deeper review, language used in the syllabi reflects institutionalized STEM teaching practices and views about knowledge that are inherently discriminatory to women and minorities by promoting a view of knowledge as static and unchanging, a view of teaching that promotes the idea of a passive student, and by promoting a chilly climate that marginalizes women'

It talks about a masculine learning climate, where knowledge is imparted by an expert to a student, facts are to be learned and individual work is expected.

Am I missing something or is this just saying similar to 'maths isn't for girls because they prefer group work and essays'? Which hardly seems feminist to me.

Greaterthanthesumoftheparts Fri 23-Sep-16 16:48:11

I'm a woman and I love STEM precisely for the reasons you've quoted! I hate English and history and 'flowery' subjects. I'm doing an OU degree in Health Sciences at the moment and I love that it's fact based and I can learn facts, and I can complete my work without having to work with others. Maybe I'm a man but don't know it...

SomeDyke Fri 23-Sep-16 17:39:55

I skimmed the article and found the line:

"Poststructuralism “rejects objectivity and the notions of an absolute truth and single reality,” and “knowledge is complicated, contradictory, and contingent to a certain social context and historical context”"

Well, unless they were talking about many-worlds and quantum theory, 2+2=4 and many other parts of maths and science ARE absolute truths, a single reality, and independent of social context.

Same paragraph:
"Analysis of texts looks for practical ideologies to uncover what is framed as logical ways of thinking that, in reality, perpetuate inequality."
Sorry, if you think that female logic is different to the (nasty) masculine logic you get in maths and science, then you really have a problem!

I don't know why they think this is "inherently discriminatory to women" unless they really believe that our little pink brains can't do maths and hard sums and logic (I must have a blue boy brain then!). As opposed, say, to women being discriminated against because they are constantly told that such logical thinking and individual work is for the boys, and then are better at emotions and group work, and touchy-feely stuff with extra pink sequins..................

Actually seems to say that males are inherently hierarchical, and females aren't. Rather than being socialised to be that way. Which is bollocks.

Poststructuralism........says it all really! Physicists been taking the piss out of this kind of thing for years, as this classic spoof article (that actually got published) demonstrates:

noblegiraffe Fri 23-Sep-16 18:03:16

I thought of Sokal too smile Maybe this is a hoax too.

Or maybe there are feminists out there moaning that woman are excluded from STEM subjects because they are full of facts.

I'm a maths teacher so professionally interested in what puts girls off STEM, but I'm not sure I should take the facts out of maths to attract them to study the subject!

ErrolTheDragon Fri 23-Sep-16 18:10:58

Your link didnt work for me, giraffe, so I'm just going off your quotes but...Sounds like an analysis based on sexist stereotypes tbh.

ErrolTheDragon Fri 23-Sep-16 19:07:19

Reading again from whats in the OP and SomeDykes quotes, it looks like it was written by someone with a BA in BS. Who doesn't understand science and tech at all. The idea that science promotes a view of knowledge which is 'static and unchanging' for instance....and gives a shit about poststructuralist rejection of objective truth...hmm
STEM is based on objective truth but our knowledge and understanding of it is constantly evolving. So frankly I'd treat anything this person has to say with a large pinch of NaCl.

As a scientist with a DD with double maths, physics and computing AS under her belt, revelling in maths en route to an engineering degree.... It rather baffles me. I think its not just that girls are put off STEM as that they aren't sufficiently attracted into those areas.

I would be happy to try. The only problem is, I don't think this paper is particularly good! hmmgrin

This whole thing about masculinity being associated with rationality is based on the theory that influential male thinkers regarded/regard themselves and their experiences as rational, objective, and therefore universal; and women's selves and experiences as embodied, relational, subjective, and 'other'. Men were of the mind, women of the body. This was a broad philosophical point that feminists, like Cixous for example, have identified and tried to challenge.

The author of this paper is trying to argue that these syllabi are representative of the courses taught more broadly, and that her method - analysing the patterns in the language used in great detail - will allow her to demonstrate that they too are based on these ideas about rationality and essential knowledge, and thus subtly exclude women.

BUT she's uncritically reproducing the association of these characteristics with masculinity, as if (irony!) it were the essential knowledge, and I think as a result has come to a conclusion that because the syllabi are based on the idea that scientific knowledge is fact (and mostly absolute, only subject to refutation by more science), and because they imply that STEM is difficult and competitive, ergo they are masculine, and ergo exclusionary to women.

I read somewhere, years ago, that someone did some detailed observations of a classroom, and then argued that the classroom itself represented a 'text' that could be analysed critically in the way that this paper attempts (as in, looking in a very detailed way at what might be underlying the simple, everyday interactions/language use). I think that'd be a fascinating thing to do in a STEM classroom/lecture hall. Noticing things like where students position themselves, body language when students speak, language used, etc.

In conversations on here, it has been suggested to me that it's ridiculous to think that science doesn't produce facts. What I think about this question is, that it's unhelpful to set up an argument whereby one person argues that science produces objective facts and the other says it doesn't. Because we know that science produces facts that remain facts until other science demonstrates that they need to be revised. But where science becomes socially constructed is when it is viewed more at a meta level. Take the science of gendered (or not!) brains for example. You can say that an individual study or two has produced evidence about different areas of brains lighting up, or that boy/girl toddlers will play with trucks/dolls. But if you don't see this in a wider context of humans working as scientists, with particular interests and biases in what questions they ask and how; funding organisations and their political priorities; dissemination, media biases, and yes (sorry) the language used, then you're not taking in the whole picture. It's the whole picture that is socially constructed, I would suggest. It would be very interesting to know/if how this wider perspective is taught in STEM courses, but again, I'd be very careful indeed about assigning any differences to masculinity or femininity.

I highly recommend Miranda Fricker's work on epistemic justice as an alternative to poststructuralist ways of thinking about this overall issue.


ErrolTheDragon Fri 23-Sep-16 19:50:54

So was I about right with 'Sounds like an analysis based on sexist stereotypes' then? grin

It's that age old problem though, I think. At what point does challenging a stereotype by pointing it out and saying it shouldn't evidence, become reproducing it. Iyswim?

Shouldn't evidence? I meant 'exist' blush

ErrolTheDragon Fri 23-Sep-16 19:55:01

'I think that'd be a fascinating thing to do in a STEM classroom/lecture hall. Noticing things like where students position themselves, body language when students speak, language used, etc. '

It might be even more interesting to do in three classrooms - one all male, one all female and one mixed, given the statistics which show that girls in single-sex schools have higher uptake and continuation of STEM subjects.

ErrolTheDragon Fri 23-Sep-16 19:59:03

Not exactly sure I do SWYM, buffy. Unless you mean that a girl who's blissfully unaware of some stereotype is best left not knowing that exists, because hearing about it could induce the stereotype threat?

Not so much. What I meant was, I do think that there's something in the idea that men seem OK with the idea that they can be objective, that their experiences are universal, and women look around and don't always see our particular experiences represented, so we are 'othered'. Pointing that out can be very useful.

But if you assume that this dynamic is a given, as I think this researcher seems to have done, that's when it starts to cross over into being more like stereotyping.

Lorelei76 Fri 23-Sep-16 21:54:01

I'm totally lost, just in case anyone wants to explain it in words of one syllable, but I totally realise that's unlikely!

I will try to take up the challenge <blots brow nervously>

Here goes: The original paper is based on the overall theory that discourses (i.e. language and how it is used) structure how we understand everything.

If language structures how we understand everything, then one way to investigate how something - particularly something very social like education - works is to analyse in great detail how that thing tends to be spoken or written about.

This researcher wants to understand how/if STEM subjects tend to exclude women, so she has collected a large sample of course syllabi, and looked for trends and patterns in the language, and sought to interpret them.

She has concluded that the syllabi present STEM courses as competitive and difficult subjects, where there is absolute knowledge, and right and wrong answers. This, she has linked with 'masculine' ways of knowing and ways of working, and thus her conclusion is that STEM isn't welcoming to women.

There is a pretty sensible theory in feminism (academic and practical) that on the whole, men and men's experiences are assumed to be rational and objective, and representative of experiences generally. For example, in anthropological writing, pre-about-1980s, you'd quite often see statements like 'the people of X have this custom, and it means y to them' where the anthropologist had only studied men. And if they studied women, it would be 'the women do this other thing'. A bit like in broadsheet newspapers I suppose, when there are the sections called news, culture, sport, finance, women.

Where we'd got to, I think, was talking about the way that this researcher seemed to be working with the theory described in the previous paragraph, but had accepted without question that certain styles of learning and communication are masculine, and will therefore naturally be unwelcoming to women. Which might accidentally perpetuate that very dynamic a feminist would want to challenge, you'd think.

A bit like, I suppose, the way that we can be critical of girls and boys being heavily influenced by ads and shop layouts towards particular colours and styles of toy, because that stereotypes and limits them; but what this researcher seems to have started to do is say, in effect, well if we want girls to like STEM, we have to make the science and technology toys pink, because if they are blue that will be unwelcoming to them.

In the first example, we are being critical of the stereotyping itself, in the second we have tacitly accepted that girls like pink and if we want them to be included, we need to make things pink for them. ISYWIM?

MatildaOfTuscany Sat 24-Sep-16 09:32:31

Thank you Buffy - great articulation of both what's right about discourse analysis, and limiting about what this particular author is trying to do (I tried to read the article and found it pretty impenetrable). My PhD supervisor (theoretical physicist with an international reputation) used to joke that most scientific method was applied after the fact, and that secretly he thought Feyerabend was right - there is no such thing as the scientific method.

Another thing I thought was missing was a cross-comparison with what syllabi looked like in arts/humanities/social sciences. I suspect that a lot will come down to where the university is trying to position itself. I can imagine a lot of Ivy League/Russell Group/ Oxbridge syllabi in, say, history, where much would be made of scholarly objectivity and how hard the subject was - as a way of claiming status among your fellow academics. Then there would be other syllabi I expect which would be all about collaboratively constructing knowledge together. And I think it would be interesting and informative to ask "why is this department presenting itself this way?"

ErrolTheDragon Sat 24-Sep-16 10:07:18

Thanks Buffy. Yes, that sounds like a fundamentally flawed analysis. Women being put off by something being 'difficult' FFS is frankly insulting. Unless they've had their confidence undermined...

Apart from the main issue you've expounded about being based on a stereotype, I'd also question the basis, of 'language structuring how we understand everything' when it comes to STEM disciplines. (Unless 'language' means something other than the obvious, which is entirely possible. Some academics use language in a way which obfuscates meaninggrin). We understand much in these areas through other means. The most obvious is mathematics. Other means are observations and graphical representations. Much of my thinking and communication with colleagues is not mediated by words. Much of what I was taught wasn't via words - a huge component was doing.

There might be some (population) differences in learning styles between men and women, but I'm not sure that they'd turn out to be in line with stereotypical expectations. I read something a while ago (cant find it now) about why women weren't attracted by computer science any more, even though in the early days they were more equally represented. IIRC a lot of it was the 'people like us' phenomenon, but there was something that stuck in my mind about boys preferring to do things with fancy graphical interfaces while girls tended to prefer getting down to the nitty gritty of the code. Which of those sounds 'harder' ?

Lorelei76 Sat 24-Sep-16 11:03:25

Buffy thanks, I appreciate you taking time to clear that up for me.

You know what's really ironic? Now you've explained it to me, I feel as if the paper is saying that women are intimidated by situations where there are clear answers, whereas what I find "intimidating" - possibly the wrong word - are theoretical papers where there may be nuances attached to certain words and I don't know which nuances the author goes along with.

ErrolTheDragon Sat 24-Sep-16 11:13:37

Lorelei - yes, absolutely!

ErrolTheDragon Sat 24-Sep-16 11:27:53

A 'two cultures' sort of thing, maybe.

I feel as if the paper is saying that women are intimidated by situations where there are clear answers

Yeah, I think unfortunately the paper does end up implying that pretty strongly. Whereas the ideas that sparked this whole way of looking at knowledge structures (at least in anthropology/sociology) was supposed to be, in simple terms: male dominated systems have created ways of knowing that view knowledge as objective and static - right and wrong answers - but in fact the system they have created only really represents male (and white male at that) interpretations, which white men claim are universal, and because white men are powerful, their claims get accepted as objective truth.

So this whole thing about challenging the idea that there is one interpretation that is correct or true, and other interpretations are incorrect or not true (again in social science, not maths) meant that you could legitimately say that well, male experience of a phenomenon might be this, but actually women experience that phenomenon very differently (simple example, walking home at night) and women's experiences can't just be dismissed as 'subjective' or 'emotional' or whatever, simply because they don't fit the male standard.

Kennington Sat 24-Sep-16 12:33:44

I don't understand what post structuralism is but STEM subjects are much more attractive because of the reduced level of bullshit. This article is why some scientists have been taking the Micky out of many humanities courses for years.
Some mainland European countries are more encouraging of females studying STEM subjects, I have the impression anyway.

ErrolTheDragon Sat 24-Sep-16 12:40:04

Anyway ... I rather think that paper is a blind alley in providing any practical solutions for attracting girls into STEM. Noble might find something like provides more productive trains of thought.

noblegiraffe Sat 24-Sep-16 13:09:44

Thanks for this discussion, it's really interesting, although as a STEM graduate I find a lot of it hard to get my head around!

One thing I find difficult about the stereotype issue is where socialisation fits in. Boys are better than girls at maths is an obvious stereotype which isn't borne out by the data which shows near-identical GCSE results. However, girls do perform much better than boys at English. Arguments as to why this is include girls being socialised to talk more, discuss feelings, sit down and read quietly; boys are socialised to be active, bottle up emotions, reading isn't cool. Girls are socialised to put others first, take a caring role, boys are socialised to be practical, come up with solutions etc. So when you have a bright girl and a bright boy and the girl is steered towards medicine or the humanities and the boy is steered towards engineering, rather than that being a perpetuation of stereotypes, isn't that the natural conclusion of the socialisation process? They are genuinely better suited to those roles because of the hidden curriculum that has trained them for them?

noblegiraffe Sat 24-Sep-16 13:16:56

Thanks for that link, Errol, I think it's a good idea to try.

I took a group of Y7/8 girls to a university 'Women in Engineering' event last year, which was supposed to show them that girls can do engineering too. There were lots of female STEM graduates who talked about what they were up to, which was really interesting. But the whole thing felt a bit, I don't know, like an add-on. Like Buffy was saying upthread about News, Politics, Sport, Women being categories in the newspaper.

Demanding 50-50 representation would make teachers consider students that they wouldn't normally put forward, which is good (girls do not, as a rule, volunteer), and it also normalises their participation in engineering in a way that 'special' events for women wouldn't. However, I do know the risk of such a strategy is that boys tend to dominate educational environments even when equally represented - I see it in the classroom all the time. Thus at such a mixed event, girls could find themselves pushed to the back and be put off.

It's a hard one to fix!

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