Towards a More Humane Genetics Education

Sex/Gender Disparities in STEM

What role could biology education play in addressing gender disparities in STEM?

Project Purpose: 

There are not enough females/women in STEM. Throughout history, many young females/girls have been led to believe they are innately not as good at STEM as males/boys. They are intentionally or unintentionally dissuaded from pursuing STEM,  and consequently, gender disparities are a persistent problem across the field. 

This project explores the role biology education can play in tackling this problem. We aim to teach a more scientifically accurate model of genetics to refute stereotypical beliefs about STEM abilities related to sex/gender. 

Our Work: 

In our early research, we discovered that biology education leads students to believe misconceptions about the connection between genetics and race. The same is true for genetics and sex/gender. 

These misconceptions include: 

  • People of the same sex/gender are genetically uniform.
  • Males/boys and females/girls are categorically different genetically and neurologically.
  • Genes are the most powerful and important cause of complex human traits.

To investigate this further, we conducted an analysis of commonly used biology textbooks to determine how they were discussing sex/gender categories in relation to genetics. 

We found that in chapters discussing genetics and sex (where it was often conflated with gender), males and females were often referenced as being categorically different from each other. Differences within each sex were portrayed to be non-existent. Little to no reference was ever given to variation within or between groups being on a spectrum, and indeed there was only one mention of intersex individuals in the entire sample. These findings have been presented at two conferences, and published findings are under development. 

This oversimplified representation of genetics and sex could cause misconceptions and ultimately increase sexist thinking among adolescents. So it made us wonder whether biology education could also play a role in decreasing sexist thinking. 

We are currently designing a curriculum unit – which presents population and multifactorial genetics as well as neurological variation with a specific goal of refuting stereotypical beliefs about STEM abilities related to sex/gender. In this unit, students discover there is more genetic variation within human sexes than there is between them, and that it is hard to categorize a person as male or female based just on their brain. In other words, females/girls and males/boys are much more similar to each other than students, and perhaps teachers, realize.  

Will this curricular intervention help students and teachers believe that males/boys are not innately better at STEM than females/girls? Could interventions like this play a role in reducing sex/gender disparities in STEM? 

Time will tell. 

What’s Next: 

Our new curriculum will be tested for the first time with students during the 2022-2023 school year. This intervention will be a 45-minute online learning experience, and will be used to inform the development of curricular materials to be used by teachers and students as part of a longer in-class unit for future years. 

About the Grant

Title: Exploring how learning about the genetics of sex differences impacts genetic essentialism and STEM belonging and interest

Partners: Dr. Andrei Cimpian, New York University; Catherine Riegle-Crumb, University of Texas, Austin

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 1956152.