Figuring Worlds; Imagining Paths : A Feminist Exploration of Identities in Higher Education Biology
Abstract: Higher education biology is a natural science discipline that is numerically female biased on undergraduate level across most international contexts. In Sweden, Germany, and the UK, for example, more than 60% of all undergraduate students are women. However, equally prominent in these European contexts and beyond is the progressive decrease in the percentage of women along the academic career ladder, resulting in fewer than 30% of women among full professors in biology. This numerical decline contradicts unproblematised understandings of biology practices as gender-neutral, where biology as a female-coded and “soft” natural science discipline is perceived as free from gendered processes of in- and exclusion. As pointed out by feminist critics of science and science education researchers, gender-neutral discourses hide gendered processes; they unmark, neutralize, and normalize masculinity in natural science practices. Gendered norms in relation to issues of identity and participation in higher education science have been addressed rather extensively in male-dominated natural science disciplines such as physics. However, only a few studies focus these lenses on higher education biology. In this thesis, I explore how university students and teachers negotiate identities, make meaning of emotions, and figure worlds of higher education biology. As a trained biologist and a becoming gender scholar and science educator, I explore biology cultures from in- and outside perspectives. Working from within and between disciplines also provides me with theoretical and methodological tools to understand processes of enculturation in higher education biology, building on an eclectic theoretical framework, combining feminist, social constructivist, and cultural perspectives. I analyse students’ study motivation texts and teachers’ teaching statements from a Swedish context, as well as interviews with university biology students from three European universities in Sweden, Germany, and the UK. Across the four papers included in this thesis, narrow masculine norms of science, and particularly research, emerge in students’ and teachers’ identity work. These norms are challenged through alternative and broader imaginaries of biology practice and interpretations of participation within. On the one hand, recognizing broader identities has the potential to widen the practice of higher education biology. On the other hand, students negotiating alternatives to the norm risk not being recognized in interactions with research-focused teachers and hence being hindered in developing a sense of belonging to biology communities. Female students showed a tendency to imagine participation in broader ways, and the clash of this with the normative cultural imaginaries within higher education biology risks contributing to the progressive decrease of the percentage of women in biology at universities. Taken together, this thesis provides further evidence for how higher education biology is far from a gender-neutral natural science discipline. While hegemonic and masculine norms of doing science and research are visible in university biology students’ and teachers’ identity work, alternative imaginaries provide possibilities for change towards a more diverse field of biology.
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