Change the game, not the girl : Understanding the role of gender-science stereotypes in science competitions

Science competitions do not seem as appealing to girls as they do to boys. Even though participation in a science competition is linked to promoting science interest, self-beliefs, and future science careers, girls seem more reluctant to join, and are less successful than boys. As hundreds of thousands of secondary school students take part in a science competition each year, these out-of-school science activities could be a significant source for gender inequity. This is why in depth research to understand success and failure in science competitions, the mechanisms behind them, and the role of gender are of great importance. Although several studies reported about gender differences in science competitions, no systematic analysis of the gender gap is available to date. The first aim of this dissertation was therefore to determine the status quo on gender differences in science competitions and to identify theoretical frameworks and factors explaining participation and achievement. Since prior publications in the context of both science education and science competitions have indicated gender-science stereotypes as the main negative influence on female self-beliefs, the second aim of this dissertation was understanding the role of gender-science stereotypes in mechanisms explaining participation and achievement. By means of a systematic review, publications on science competitions were analyzed to determine the degree of the gender gap and identify factors and theories explaining participation and success. Participation and achievements in science fairs were comparable, but gender differences were found to be especially large in science Olympiads. Especially in the physics and chemistry Olympiad, gender-science stereotypes were suggested to have a negative influence on female self-concept and interest, thereby affecting participation and achievements. Eccles et al.’s (1983) expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation was recommended as most suitable theoretical framework for explaining gender differences. Subsequently, a moderated mediation analysis was performed to examine gendered participation and success in the German chemistry Olympiad on the basis of expectancy-value theory. The results confirmed the negative impact of gender stereotypes on girls. Although female self-concept and interest positively predicted further participation, gender-science stereotypes were found to negatively predict further participation. Interest was found to mediate this relationship between stereotypes and participation. There was no link between self-concept and stereotypes, but self-concept did predict achievement for male and female participants. Interest positively predicted male participants' willingness to continue with the competition. Finally, a latent profile analysis was executed to characterize profiles distinguished by career motivation, interest, and domain identification. Four profiles were identified and participant membership was predicted by gender-science stereotype endorsement, support from parents and teachers, and gender. Profile membership of the least successful profile harboring the most girls, had the strongest link with gender-science stereotypes and the weakest link with support from parents. In summary, the findings reported in this dissertation stressed the need for change in science competition structures to help diminish the negative effects of gender-science stereotypes on girls. Further research could contribute to understanding the relation between different science competitions, science education, and top performers in science education. Furthermore, future research could provide more insight into the role of parents and teachers and the influence of participation in science competitions on students. Changes and interventions improving gender equity of science competitions could be focused on strengthening female self-concept through role models, actively involving teachers, providing authentic and ungendered career information, and involving parents in the fight against gender stereotypes. In the future, this research could be extended to other minority groups and make a decisive contribution to reducing inequity in science education.


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