Laboratory note-taking burden ‘falls on female science students’

Women are given less time on equipment and more administrative duties than men in mixed gender laboratory groups, new research indicates

October 11, 2023
scientists chemists conduct experiments in the laboratory
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Female science students spend less time in the laboratory doing experiments and more time taking notes than their male classmates, a study has found.

In an experiment that monitored how undergraduates in mixed gender groups interact, more than 300 students were filmed conducting team-based exercises in laboratory sessions before the footage was reviewed by researchers.

Women spent significantly less time using lab equipment than men and more time recording experiments and taking notes, explains the recent study by academics from the University of Exeter, the Australian National University and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, published in Frontiers in Education.

When asked about their experiences in the lab, however, “female students did not perceive spending less time using equipment, and were equally satisfied with their time in different lab activities, compared to male students”.

“It is concerning that students perceived to spend the same amount of time using equipment than the rest of their peers, and were satisfied with this time,” state the study, which says the use of lab equipment had been shown to develop a student’s sense of belonging within a discipline and reinforce their identity as a scientist.

The unequal split of tasks within a laboratory has important implications for encouraging more women to remain in science into postgraduate and doctoral degrees, the paper explains, noting that the growing numbers of female science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) undergraduates might create a “false sense of gender equality in educational settings”.

“Numbers are not enough and we need to look at not only the levels of participation of women in STEM, but also the quality of their participation,” the paper notes.

The study’s lead author, Daniela Fernandez, a PhD candidate in social psychology at Exeter, said the results were “a first step and a call to promote more research looking at students’ perceptions and lab practices”.

“Although some time differences may be seen as small, the key message is that inequalities remain and more needs to be done to understand the nuances and complexities of female participation in STEM disciplines,” said Ms Fernandez.

In a separate paper, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researchers studied 308 girls from the UK and US who were in STEM youth programmes within informal science learning sites such as zoos, aquariums, science centres and museums.

Girls who saw STEM as central to who they are – a concept known as STEM identity – develop greater confidence to pursue science, thereby increasing their interest in being a scientist, the paper found.

“Taken together, these two papers strengthen the argument that we urgently need learning environments to ensure female students engage in science in a meaningful way at different levels,” said the second study’s lead author Mengya Zhao, also from Exeter.

“Both are fundamental to creating a new generation of female scientists and engineers.”

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