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Breaking down stereotypes around women in science

'Science exhibits often seem to appeal more to boys than girls, and boys often stay longer.'This reality is one of many that pushed Sheena Laursen, Director of International Affairs at Denmark's Experimentarium, to launch the TWIST project with partners from seven EU Member St...

'Science exhibits often seem to appeal more to boys than girls, and boys often stay longer.'This reality is one of many that pushed Sheena Laursen, Director of International Affairs at Denmark's Experimentarium, to launch the TWIST project with partners from seven EU Member States and Israel. Their common objective? Using marketing tools, role models and more targeted teaching methods to ensure that everyone, from primary school boys and girls to young men and women studying at university, can enjoy science to the point of considering it as a possible career path. The project - which targeted students, teachers and parents - looked at the stereotypes and biases regarding societal roles of male and female scientists and aimed to foster gender and science debates. To achieve this, it employed progressive exercises such as interactive drama, teacher training, scientist speed-dating, female scientist role models and a 'virtual puppet' to challenge biases. Interviewed by research*eu results magazine, Sheena Laursen explains the project and how she expects it to help break down gender stereotypes in science. What are the main objectives of the project? The TWIST project aims to raise awareness about the role and representation of women in science. We have been running various programmes and activities in science centres and museums, such as exhibitions targeting students, their teachers and parents. The objective is to stimulate debates and ignite ongoing discussions on issues of gender and science. Then, the lack of female scientist role models - especially in leading positions - is definitely another reason for the lack of women in top positions. And finally, many men and women are not interested in taking top positions in science, as these positions are not very family friendly, involve long hours of work and include many tasks other than the research and development that scientists are good at. What is new or innovative about the project and the way it addresses gender equality? I think the new and innovative approach lies in the target groups we try to reach. I really believe that if we want to change the stereotyped ideas of women in science we must target men and women, girls and boys. This we have tried to do through the TWIST activities and we quickly realised that there is no simple solution to this issue. Targeting the broader public and specifi c groups in different ways and at diff erent stages of their career is definitely part of the solution. With TWIST we have targeted primary schools (pupils, teachers and parents), high schools and secondary schools as well as university students and adults in general. The courses that have been developed by TWIST have proven invaluable in targeting numerous teachers, and giving them a chance to reflect on the way they teach and approach girls and boys. Teachers have a huge impact on students and their choice of career, but far too little emphasis is put on providing them with the means to inspire their students in their career choices. What difficulties have you encountered and how have you solved them? The main difficulty for us was to identify and target the many and diverse issues linked to gender in a way that could inspire people to change their practice for the better. O_ en people do have preconceived ideas of what the gender issue is, and they expect it to focus only on women. Often, only women would show up to our meetings or participate in TWIST activities, so targeting men as well has been a real challenge. To overcome this obstacle, we opted for direct marketing towards each gender and focused on making our activities appealing to both girls and boys. But it was not always an easy task: for example, we had a workshop on robots which almost only attracted boys and their fathers, in spite of us trying to target girls as well with female role models and a specific marketing approach. Next time we will try to solve this issue by directly targeting the parents. What are the concrete results from the project so far? The TWIST project came up with a new way of focusing on the gender issue in each partner country. This is called the 'Gender Day', coinciding with International Women's Day. The focus here is on celebrating the role of women in science and bringing female scientists into science centres and museums to meet and communicate with visitors. The main emphasis of these activities is on helping girls to see themselves as the scientists of tomorrow. Then we have managed to develop activities that challenge people's stereotyped ideas of scientists. Although much remains to be done in this fi eld, the partners of the TWIST project have learned and gained inspiration. They found new ways to attract visitors in science institutions and make them participate in science activities. Finally and most importantly, we raised staff awareness on the importance of mainstreaming exhibits and activities so they appeal to both girls and boys. This may have a significant strategic importance - meaning that we will have a larger and more diverse audience visiting our museums and science centres. These changes, along with the gender-mainstreaming policy we helped implement in partner institutions, would not have occurred without the TWIST project. What are the next steps in the project, or for your research? The project is ending now, but the TWIST exhibition - with a database of 42 female scientist role models as well as a 'virtual puppet' that challenges the visitor's gender biases - will be continuing in each of the science centres that were partners in the project. Furthermore, many of the activities and ideas that have been implemented will continue in various museums and science centres. And finally, many new networks and collaborations have been established together with female scientists, Danish ministries and industry, thanks to the TWIST project and these will bring new possibilities in the future.For more information, please visit: Towards Women in Science and Technology

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