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Masculinity of Science: Unveiling Gendered Challenges of Women Science Teachers in Bangladesh
Despite the existing gender stereotypes associated with science and masculinity, there are some women teachers in secondary co-education schools in Bangladesh who are going against the grain by taking up a profession in the science field. This research is an attempt to make visible the lived gendered experiences of women science teachers both in urban and semi-urban areas. By using a feminist standpoint approach, this research unveils married and unmarried women science teachers’ struggle with gender structures in schools, families and communities. This empirical study revealed that, in a classic patriarchal society, women science teachers face several challenges due to their socially prescribed gender-roles, symbolic representation, gender-specific norms and constraints in their institutions. This study contributes perspectives on how to overcome the fabricated myth of girls’ intrinsic incompatibility with science.
Keywords: Gender, Women Science Teachers, Masculinity, Bangladesh
Background: contextualizing WSTs and framing the research issue
In Bangladesh, women teachers outnumber men in the primary education sector and the number of women teachers at secondary level is also increasing (BANBEIS 2013) but because of the male-dominated science field, it is still hard to find women science teachers (WSTs) at secondary level, especially in co-education schools (Amin et al. 2006; Hill et al. 2010; Mahtab 2007; UNESCO 1997). In co-education schools, gender discrimination among teachers and students is more visible than in girls/boys only schools (Tapan 2010, Ullah 2008). The tendency to gender a subject often put barriers for women teachers to become role models for science in patriarchal contexts (Huang and Fraser 2009; Kahle and Meece 1994; Kelly 1985). Kelly (1985) notes that, the masculinity of science at secondary level can best be understood by looking at four different factors: a) number of male teachers, male students and scientists, b) application of science, c) interaction in science classroom while using different elements which has the tendency to define masculine and feminine activity and d) socially constructed image of ‘science’ which looks at power and the changing world. Kelly (1985:135) added that, ‘science was associated with factors such as difficulty, hard rather than soft, things rather than people, and thinking rather than feeling, all of which are part of the cultural stereotype of masculinity…the image of the scientist is similarly not only male but also masculine in the sense of being cold, unemotional and logical’.
The male-dominated science field presents WSTs as minorities in co-education schools in Bangladesh. When people ‘argue that science does not suit women because it promotes presumably masculine qualities of rationality, aggression, and competition, they reinforce the notion that such qualities do not belong to females, culturally developed or not’ (Tolley 2003:222). Such supposed ‘naturalness’ enhances the possibility of devaluing women’s work in patriarchal societies. In addition, the masculine organizational culture creates a barrier with regard to participation in decision-making and role modeling in schools for WSTs (Mahtab 2007). As a work place for teachers, school is a regulator of gendered identities which practices the ‘normative’ notions of ‘masculinities’ and ‘femininities’ (Dunne 2007). Moreover, in Bangladesh, subordination and subjugation of women are part and parcel of patriarchal values that make it difficult for women to continue to pursue their own professional career without the family, organization and government support. Mahtab (2007) states that traditional society does not encourage women to pursue careers which require much effort and dedication, assuming careers will affect their commitment to family affairs.
Despite the gendered cultural norms and practices in Bangladesh, there are some women teachers who are going against the grain by practicing their profession in the field of science. Their presence and performance in male-dominated domains like the sciences is providing alternative views and possibilities. Their example shows something has changed partly and that these women can lead the process by challenging the gender stereotypes in the existing structures in societies. The experiences of these women in the field of science needs to be documented and analyzed those through a gender lens, particularly in their local context of Bangladesh.
Relevance and objective of the study
The gendered norms of science in relation to lower proportional representation of WSTs in secondary co-educational schools reinforce the stereotypical message that boys are more suitable than girls for science careers. In addition, having fewer female representatives in sciences can have implications for both boys and girls especially how they view the subject. The current lack of representation of WSTs can discourage the next generation of girls who hope to build their career in sciences. Studies indicate male science teachers’ negative perception that female science students are less active and this in turn makes them less likely to be interested in science classes compared to male students (Huang and Fraser 2009). Furthermore, stereotypical belief about girls’ underperformance in science career affects their own interest in the sciences; if people see any successful women in science; this is seen as an exceptional rather than the norm (Hill et al. 2010). If the girls can see enough women science teachers in schools, they will be encouraged to take up career in science and this will lead to more women scientists at top level decision-making roles not only in academia but also in government sectors.
The objective of this paper is thus to explore and discuss the gendered challenges that WSTs face within the school, community and family in relation to the masculinity of science. If the different aspects and meanings of such practices can be incorporated in the pre- and post-service training sessions for the secondary school teachers, this would be a step in ensuring gender awareness in the school environment. Most important of all, people will overcome the myth that girls are intrinsically incompatible to the science subject.
Conceptualizing Gender
Gender is the main analytical tool of this paper which refers to a socio-cultural and psychological term. Gender has been argued as both a process and a state having political significance which initiates separation into gender-roles and responsibilities (Wickramasinghe 2010). According to Scott (1986:1067), ‘…gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and…a primary way of signifying relationships of power.’ These elements are: a) “culturally available symbols,” b) “normative concepts that set forth interpretations of the meanings of the symbols,” c) “social institutions and organizations,” and d) “subjective identity” (Scott 1986:1067-1068). These elements mentioned by Scott will facilitate analysis of findings in a systematic way by integrating the discussion of gender-roles and relations that the WSTs face within their societies.
The concept ‘gender’ also refers to distinct category of femininity and masculinity which consider the normative way of looking into different activities, interactions and personalities. Such distinctions create different gender identities (Connell 1999). While talking about gender debate, it is important to consider the aspect of ‘hegemonic masculinities’ defined by Connell (1999) which combines the notion of ‘hegemony’ and ‘masculinity’ and is considered as a strategy for subordinating women. According to Connell (1995:77), hegemonic masculinity is ‘the configuration of the legitimacy of patriarchy which guarantees (or it’s taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women’. Here the concepts of Connell in discussing gender will allow an understanding of the dynamics of social relations in patriarchal society where the WSTs also belong. Overall, in this study, gender is the crucial concept to analyze the experiences WSTs face in the continuing challenges in association with masculinity of science.
Research methodology
I selected qualitative methods to understand the lived reality of the participants rather focusing on ‘methodological universalism’ (Mohanty 1988:74) which emphasizes on numerical realities.
Feminist standpoint theory: adjusting lens
This study made extensive use of primary data which focuses on the voices of the WSTs and is anchored within a feminist standpoint theoretical perspective. Harding argued that the feminist theory has credited ‘women’s experience’ in particular and emphasized on generating knowledge from the perspective of marginalized groups. The theory prepares the ground for an analysis of women’s own lives by bringing visibility to issues that are hardly spoken about and provides causal accounts to elucidate the effects of different variables around their issues (Harding 2005:220).
Harding has conceptualized ‘women’s standpoints’ by considering them as ‘feminist concerns with subjectivity, identity politics and personal experience that privilege women’s ways of knowing’ (Wickramasinghe 2010:133). Using a feminist standpoint helped this study to go deeper into women’s experience in dealing with patriarchal ideologies at an epistemological level (Hartsock 2003). Harding (2005) also emphasized on men’s relation to women’s experiences to create the ground for feminist research. Here my study participants were not only WSTs, but also men as principals, male students and science educationist.
Haraway (1988) claimed this theory as knowledge production. This paper reflects on this knowledge by not attempting to universalize WSTs’ experiences and it also understands that such knowledge should be regarded with partiality. This paper’s approach is also located within the argument of “situated knowledge” as Harding (2004) depicted about marginalized groups in a specific context which compliments the study by not fully claiming “objectivity”, rather taking a “conscious partiality”. Therefore, this study is an attempt at producing knowledge through the lived lives of underrepresented WSTs from secondary co-education schools in Bangladesh.
Data collection
In the year 2015, field work was conducted in non-government co-education schools because the numbers are much higher than the government schools in Bangladesh and that the administrative system largely varies there (BANBEIS 2008).
An intersectional approach, considering marital status and working place, was used to purposively select WSTs study participants from urban and semi-urban areas of two districts in Dhaka division. Five WSTs from Dhaka and three from Narshingdi were selected for qualitative “intensive interview” which helped to ‘resemble guided conversations rather than structured queries’ (Yin 2014:110). This allowed me to map out these participants’ life stories focusing on the long-term reflections of their societies. I worked within the rich context of few WSTs’ experiences. The reason behind having fewer WSTs from Narshingdi is that, the number of women teachers in semi-urban secondary schools is very low and WSTs from co-education schools hardly exist there. In this case, the convenience sampling technique was used to select teachers who were available and ‘willing to participate in the research study’ (Johnson and Christensen 2008:238).
Six students (three girls and three boys) from grade VII-VIII were selected from each school using snowball sampling technique based on their voluntary participation in focus group discussions (FGDs) (Vaus 2001). The FGDs helped to have ‘rich discussion to draw out depth of opinion that might not arise from direct questioning’ (O’Leary, 2010:196). FGD was conducted to understand the provocative issue about understanding WSTs’ professional experience according to students by raising the question about what are their ideas about an ‘ideal’ science teacher. The students drew pictures on perceptions and these images supplemented the discussion.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the principals of each schools and a science educationist from Bangladesh to understand the organizational context and the broader picture of the gendered nature of science education in the country in relation to the WSTs’ experiences respectively. Finally, I triangulated data to understand different points of view on the specific phenomenon which allowed me to reflect on the meanings which were similar or contradictory to ensure the validity of the findings (Laws, Harper and Marcus 2003).
Findings and discussion
In this section I present and discuss the multidimensional challenges of WSTs which are often inextricably intertwined in their workplace, families and communities. By quoting the narratives of the interviewees, I attempt to create a forum for them to articulate their experiences and ideas using several themes.
Coping with the workload and time conflict in teaching science
Data revealed the workload for teaching science is more than other subjects like, history, language etc. at secondary schools because the abstract subject-matter requires concrete teaching-aids and logical explanations with real life-based examples. Science teaching and experiments require much reading and preparation as noted by one of the WSTs:
‘If you see Bangla grammar syllabus, it hardly changes over time. But science is changing constantly. So a science teacher needs to keep updated with these changes and should prepare in such a way that is keeping with the students’ demands’. (Monoara, Dhaka).
Studies on educational techniques showed that, all individual subjects have their own strategies (Russell and Martin 2007) but the education system of Bangladesh automatically gives much importance to teach technical subjects like science. Students usually have the ability to rote recall without necessarily understanding the concepts but understanding is an aspect that has been emphasized with the use of teaching-aids much more in sciences than others (Tapan 2010). Most schools do not have enough scientific teaching-aids and laboratories. Sometimes their science teachers have to bring in their own equipment. The idea that the sciences are more demanding is supported by the ‘educationist’ in this study who says expectations are much higher for the science teacher. He stated: ‘a science teacher should be a true investigator and observer. They should think logically and they should have the scientific literacy’. Data shows that science has been considered as a “difficult” subject where the teachers need more time to comprehend the subject-matters; as a consequence they need to devote more time to the sciences. Aforementioned are the general challenges that both men and women face as science teachers and these include the amount of time teaching science consumes, the heavy workload including being logical investigators, are all consistent with Kelly’s (1985) argument that such traits associated with the sciences are related to the stereotyped image of masculinity.
The WSTs in this study are burdened because they have to juggle between responsibilities at work and home. Majority of them cannot cope with the demands of the ‘masculine traits’ that come with teaching sciences. A WST Shohag stated:
‘The main responsibility of our male colleagues is teaching, even in his home or community he will be treated as a respected teacher. It is much harder for a woman because she cannot act as a teacher in her family’.
The WSTs feel that it is important to share the latest news on science innovation with students and an ideal science teacher should practice new knowledge to motivate students towards science but they are constrained by their time at home. They feel the students are disadvantaged by these limitations. Data from the ‘educationist’s’ interview also supported these intersecting and burdensome responsibilities that WSTs face when he stated:’It does not matter if she is teaching or handling any other profession, at the end of the day an assessment of the WST will be based on her performance in the family’.
Some married WSTs from Dhaka expressed that they are interested in pursuing higher studies but they think that doing so in the sciences means spending long hours in the laboratory. Research on “nature of science” has also shown that this subject requires constant dedication at higher levels if one is to grasp its actual essence (Lederman et al. 2002). On the contrary, married WSTs from Narshingdi do not have any interest in further studies because they do not have enough time to do anything else except looking after their family. All this is an indication that stereotyped gender-roles in families is more common in semi-urban areas where women are tasked with the nurturing role. This is consistent with Davis (2008) who talked about variations in the lived experiences of women because of geographical factors.
Married WSTs’ contribution to science projects is constrained unlike their male counterparts as stated by Cahusac and Kanji (2014:65) because of “time conflict”. Time pressure creates tension in the lives of WSTs to the point that they become ‘trapped’ in the power relations of patriarchy. These women have to choose family responsibilities over their career which is consistent with Mahtab (2007). By drawing on Scott’s (1986:1067) notion of ‘perceived differences’ between men and women, the data indicates that because of the distinct gender-roles, it is more difficult for women to present themselves as ideal teachers because their identity is tied more to domestic work. The masculine image of science as a technical subject puts much pressure on women as Kelly (1985) stated. This study depicts this notion as shown by the responsibilities WSTs have in the home that is given more credence over teaching science. This in turn hinders the prospects of one advancing their careers as a WST because of this extra burden of work within the home.
Gender division in science content: the influence of social construction of knowledge
WSTs’ involvement in the biological sciences and males in physical sciences can be viewed as influenced by the social construction of knowledge. Here the gender division of labor is associated with the gender-roles, hierarchies in science content and resources available for individuals’ socialization process.
The demography of the WSTs reveals that, five out of eight teachers are from the biology field, with two from physics and one from chemistry. The teachers all are assigned the general science classes for grade VI-VIII where they teach all aspects of science i.e. physics, chemistry and biology. Interestingly, while the WSTs with a biology background are taking biology classes in grade IX-X. Those with a non-biology background do not get to teach physics or chemistry. In all the schools, the male teachers are more involved in teaching physics and chemistry to upper secondary classes.
Apart from the visible hierarchies seen in the sciences’ contents, all the WSTs in this study including some of the principals noted that women have a leaning towards biology while the men’s interest was physics and chemistry. The teachers felt that physics and chemistry are more suitable for men as some of them perceived men’s technical ability to be superior to that of the women. The WSTs observed that in their classes, the male students were more likely to prefer physical sciences rather than the biological sciences whereas girls were more interested in biology. When asking about the reason for boys’ interest in physical science, another WST Mahbuba affirmed that the boys get all the freedom and time to nurture their scientific interests by collecting different equipment like old radios, broken toys and cables with their friends and then making something new out of it. Girls do not do these activities but instead spend most of their time helping their mother with the household chores. Girls are rarely allowed to go outside and so they spend time reading inside their rooms. This is consistent with Wickramasinghe (2010) who noted gender as part of the socialization process which distinguishes the gender-roles.
A principal from Narshingdi expounded on the point of gender division of labor in science by saying:
‘The perception when it comes to women is that they are more in sync with their nurturing ability and that they are made to reproduce. That is why mothers can relate more easily with biological sciences. Physical science is actually not for women because it is not always possible for them to be very logical when it comes to handling chemicals, architectural and electronic stuff’.
Such data showed the social constructed notion within patriarchy is similar to Gherardi’s (1995:10) argument on ‘social construction of knowledge’. Therefore the social construction of knowledge has created the gendered differences within the sciences. Here the presupposed understanding about women’s ability in science has a connection with their socially prescribed gender-roles which in turn can influence those girls who may have an interest in ‘hard sciences’ against them.
Weinburgh (1995) noted that girls who have more interest in physics than biology have a more positive attitude towards sciences. This reinforces the notion of masculinity of science content where physics is considered as more masculine and biology as least masculine (Nasr and Soltani 2011). By drawing on Scott’s (2010:9) notion of ‘symbolic structures’, this study shows such hierarchies in science content and symbolic gendered structure can put pressure on those WSTs who are from a biology background. Such ideals may make women feel insecure and lessen their desire in teaching science at secondary level. In addition, these anxieties may make the females feel inept against their male colleagues who are mostly from physics and chemistry backgrounds.
Representation of science teachers and its cultural influence on educational practice
The shortage of women in science during the schooling and training period made it more difficult for WSTs themselves to become role model. The ability of WST to motivate girls to take up science is often negatively influenced by their parent’s cultural and stereotypical beliefs. Such symbolic representations define the societal culture and practice of male dominated subjects.
The WSTs mainly encountered male science teachers during their own school lives and as well as their training sessions. They also experienced the same at the higher level which had fewer women in science field, which is consistent with Choudhury’s (2013) view. Luna, a WST from Narshingdi said, ‘In my university we were just two girls in our section. The rest were boys’. She also expressed how such limited representation of girls in the classroom setting made it uncomfortable to ask questions in front of boys. When the WSTs were students they did not see enough WSTs as their role models and it was hard to find girls doing the sciences. When they had any WSTs during school life, they were perceived differently. Another WST Shohag expressed that: ‘I thought that if a madam is teaching science or mathematics, she must be someone very aggressive or angry’. Thus such symbolic representations can lead the students to expect or visualize the ‘masculinity of science’ in the behavior of their WSTs. Data from FGDs with a total of 33 (12 girls and 21 boys) out of 48 students (gender equal) revealed that, the students prefer male teachers in science classes. Some of the data is illustrated in Figure 1. The reason for such a response may be linked to the masculinized image of science which is consistent with Kelly’s (1985) views. The numerical data from the FGDs revealed the symbolic gendered structures and perceptions in the patriarchal context.
Figure 1 Students’ perception: “ideal” science teachers

During the FGD, I asked specifically about biology teachers; all the boys preferred men and all the girls including the 12 who had drawn the image of the “ideal science teacher” as male preferred WSTs because they felt shy to discuss aspects like the human body or reproductive system in front of opposite sex. In interviews, WST Hasina stated: ‘in our class, the majority were boys. The girls never asked questions on sensitive topics during biology class because they were shy.’ These sentiments were echoed by the ‘educationist’ who stated that: ‘In the context of Bangladesh, students usually respect their teachers and like to keep a distance from them unless the teachers go out of their way to create a conducive environment for the students to interact freely with them’. These feeling of insecurity among the students may have something to do with their socialization where talking about intimate matters is considered taboo. Scott (2010) stated that the ‘culturally available symbols’ around us put pressure on people in general to think within the prescribed gendered box. This view is shown in the effect on students’ choices and their views about role models in the sciences. Having male science teachers in secondary co-education schools is seen as the norm and over the years society has gradually normalized the masculine attributes.
During the training sessions for the sciences, some of the WSTs have also experienced uneasiness emanating from the stares from their male colleagues because these women are the minority. They often found it difficult to build rapport with their male colleagues who are the majority. As noted by Luna, another interviewee: ‘Among 29 teachers, I felt too shy to open up, even to ask questions! Though we all had separate rooms, I still felt uncomfortable with the whole setting because I was the only woman there.’ Numerical data in the form of the narratives like the one in this study is significant. Cirlot (1985:33) has written that, ‘the quantitative is transformed into the qualitative at certain essential points which constitute the significance of quantity’ (cited in Gherardi 1995:33). Thus such data reveals the symbolic structures of society. Similarly, WST Hasina also talked about the experience of hands-on scientific activities during their training sessions where they felt like male colleagues were looking and treating them differently, as if they are not suited to be at there. Situations like these are a challenge for the WSTs in Bangladesh who are not used dealing with male-networks. Over time, male dominated fields automatically establish a culture where women feel uncomfortable being minorities.
WSTs continue their struggle in trying to motivate girls to do the sciences even though they are the minority. The WSTs said that the girls’ parents just want them to complete SSC level (especially in semi-urban areas) and that is why according to the parents, it is waste of time for the girls to study a technical subject. The sciences require one to go for private tuition to make the subject comprehensible, making it more costly than other subjects. The guardians in semi-urban areas are not at all interested in spending extra cash on girls’ education even though they are financially able to. Majority of the teachers claim that the guardians in semi-urban areas are keen on students taking the easy way out by taking non-science subjects at SSC level which they can pass easily unlike science which is a more difficult subject. Such a situation is not very common among the guardians from urban areas. The study showed the WSTs from semi-urban areas are not able to convince the guardians that their daughters can do well in the sciences because most of the guardians are not from privileged backgrounds. It is clear one’s physical background is an indication of the multidimensional experiences of women, an aspect depicted by Nash (2008). In the case where the parents have stereotypical beliefs about gendered-roles this limits the chances of their daughters taking up the sciences. Such a situation has proven a challenge for WSTs in their attempts to be role models, motivating girls to take up the sciences in the patriarchal context at school. This study agrees with Scott’s (1986) argument on “symbols”, when it shows that the presence of fewer WSTs and the symbolic acceptance of science teachers as men influence the educational practice because the WSTs do not have much of a voice.
Norms that constrain WSTs
This study highlighted some of the norms and behavioral patterns that demoralize enthusiastic WSTs within school, family and community. Some of the norms include: attending to guests at home, nurturing children, getting married off at an early age and restrictions on their movements
Within school and family
Some societal norms exercised in school and/or family play a negative role in WSTs’ professional life. The WSTs expressed that male teachers are not bound to take leave when guests come into their home because it is woman’s responsibility to take care of them. Married WST Geeta stated that: ‘women teachers are constantly taking leave while the male teachers are not obliged to do so because their wives will take up responsibility for any guests coming to the home’. Taking too much time off as compared to her male colleagues has a direct bearing on the teacher’s career progression.
In addition, because of the norms guiding day to day life in a patriarchal society, during the maternity period for WSTs, the patriarchal institutes try to influence them to leave their jobs. It is as if quitting your job should be a “natural” path to follow once you have a baby. Some of the WSTs’ experience was that during their maternity period (9 months of pregnancy and/or 6 months after giving birth) they had been asked by their families and school authority to leave their jobs. Another WST Luna from Narshingdi was approached by the school administration on a number of occasions to quit her job because she reported to duty late owing complications early in her pregnancy. At the time, Luna’s husband was not financially capable, that so this forced her to resume work within a month after giving birth for fear of losing her job.
When I asked about maternity leave for WSTs, the ptincipals of those schools said that the school cannot afford long term leave for WSTs yet there are written agreements for maternity leave. This matter about leave becomes more complicated when it is related to the subjects like science because there are few teachers who can cover for them especially at secondary level. That is why the authority keeps pressuring the WSTs to quit their job once they get pregnant so that their positions can be quickly filled by someone else. Mahbuba from Dhaka experienced such pressure from her family when her son was 5-6 months old. It was clear from these women’s tone that there was pressure on them to quit their jobs and that doing so was the ‘norm’ in their patriarchal society. Miller (2007) exemplifies the situation WSTs find themselves in when she states that, ‘maternity is a time when the dominant group disempowers women by endorsing their exit as a natural, almost inevitable consequence, of the incompatibility of the roles of mother and professional worker. These practices build on powerful societal ideologies of what constitutes good mothering, and to which middle-class mothers are particularly receptive’ (cited in Cahusac and Kanji 2014:58). Therefore, by drawing on Connell’s (1995:77) argument on ‘legitimacy of patriarchy’, this study revealed that the dominant masculine context exercises its power over the minorities, in this case by putting some standards in the organizational system in such a way that an ‘exit’ can be considered as something natural for women during maternity period since one of their main gender-roles is to give birth.
The issues around nurturing children have seen some of the school authorities’ preference to recruit unmarried WSTs. This is supported by AWID (2004) who showed how the different sets of identity can effect ones opportunities. An unmarried WST Rebeka revealed that the authority at her school does not want to recruit married women teachers for the sciences assuming that they will demand for more leave and the school cannot afford leave especially for science and math teachers. This is consistent with Cahusac and Kanji (2014:58) who noted that, ‘many professional women believe that women are perceived as less committed to the organization after having a child’. In this study, I found that the student’s guardians also put pressure on the school’s managing committee to recruit teachers in science who can give extra hours after school for students because the guardians are not able to help their kids at home when it comes to such technical subjects. This whole situation, coupled with a complex chain of relations among different actors in school ‘push’ married WST out of the school while family obligations ‘pulls’ them into the home.
Within community
While talking about the community-norms, the unmarried WSTs’ life is constrained by different societal issues, especially getting married off. The unmarried WST like Shohag face different problems from the neighbors and relatives. These community members who form part of the patriarchal society are still influenced by stereotypical gender-roles. The community expects a girl to be married off as early as possible and have this preconceived notion that girls stop taking care of their parents once they get married.
Pressures from the communities also has an influence on the life of married WSTs. Sharmin, a married WST said that she faced negative comments from the relatives if she came home after sunset. Hasina faced such negative comments from the local people when she visited a chemical industry in the country side in the company of her students. A woman was not expected by the society to visit a big industry in the country side unaccompanied. This was supported by the ‘educationist’ who noted that:
‘Science teachers may need to carry out project-based field work. In Bangladesh, male teachers do this with ease. They can easily move out into the field with their students whereas this is a challenge for female teachers because of the cultural barriers that exist.
Another WST Mahbuba has been criticized several times by the neighbors because her husband helps her out with the domestic chores. Dated community norms place restrictions on the lives of WSTs.
Many dimensions of day to day life are socially constructed and legitimize the dominance of masculinities and this is common in patriarchal societies where people assume women are bound by certain gender-roles. Ultimately these gender-specific limitations have an effect on the lives of the WSTs. This is consistent with Connell (1995:69) who notes that, ‘the terms “masculine and feminine” go beyond categorical sex difference in the ways men differ among themselves, and women differ among themselves in matters of gender.’ That means, the socially prescribed gender-roles and norms that society expects from WSTs reinforce their subordinate roles in the community and in turn limit opportunities for them.
School and family politics constraining career advancement
The masculine culture present in social institutions like school and family is politically structured in such way that it hinders career advancement and affects the general performance of WSTs. According to Scott (1986), the nature of such institutional settings has been considered as one of the elements of the social construction of gender.
Data revealed the promotion of WSTs does not always depend on the experience of teachers but rather on the personal relationship with the authority at the school. Gender differences are manifested in the uncomfortable relationships between the WSTs and their male colleagues. WST Mahbuba stated that:
‘It is not possible for me to stay for long hours after school and to have small talk with the headmaster because my son is waiting for me at home…Some of the male teachers have informal conversations with the authorities after school hours and this puts them at an advantage over us. During salary increment or promotion, the headmaster addresses those teachers first.’
Just like Mahubaba, other WSTs have said that they often try to avoid this conversation simply because of diffidence. Cahusac and Kanji (2014:63) have also revealed that, ‘women found the socializing aspects of their work particularly difficult’. All the WSTs in this study are the sole female science teachers in their respective schools and therefore they have no choice but to consult their male colleagues when they face any difficulties. In addition, six out of eight head teachers in this study are male, making it difficult for the WSTs to open up to them owing to cultural barriers. Drawing on Connell’s (1995:77) concept of ‘hegemonic masculinities’ which ‘guarantees dominant position of men’, such aforesaid situations often works as a positive point for the dominating group who like to socialize after the school hours and masculine nature in itself allows for this. This increases their chances of a promotion.
In such organizational culture, even the type of dominance may vary based on the personal relationship of the WSTs and the authority. Hasina confessed that during her recruitment she got preferential treatment because the headmaster was her relative. She feels somewhat ‘trapped’ because she is constantly thinking about her relationship with her in-laws’ who got her this job. She is too scared to ask for a leave and other privileges because she ‘owes’ it to her relatives. This situation is in keeping with Gherardi who affirms that, ‘it may be superfluous to insist yet again that organizations are not distinct from society, and that internally, they reflect the patriarchal system of their environment’ (1995:16). Thus the experience of Hasina shows how trapped she is, destined to work according to the whims of the organizational head who also happens to be a relative. The complexity of school and family culture reveals that women have to constantly think about their relationship with their in-laws even when addressing personal matters such as career progression.
Another angle to this discussion is where family members choose school-teaching as a career for WSTs who did not otherwise want to be teachers in secondary schools. Some of the married WSTs who have chosen the teaching profession were prevailed upon to do so by their in-laws who believe it is most suitable because it allows them to devote more time to the family. Mahbuba was interested in becoming an independent science researcher but could not do so. Different research have also shown that women are somewhat influenced by the state or family obligations to enter into the teaching profession because the work calendar is in sync with school going children at home (Griffiths 2006). Ultimately, such decisions are of no help to women who are interested exclusively in a career in science and not necessarily teaching. WSTs feel kind of trapped in the very limited practice in sciences within the school setting and at the same time they cannot fully commit to these teaching responsibilities. It is clear that, ‘the interactions among individuals in the multiplicity of forms enact dominance and subordination and creates alliances and exclusions’ in women’s career advancement (Gherardi 1995:18). This is an indication of gender discrimination and segregation within institutions and organizations.
Gender power dynamics: where are the WSTs?
In the patriarchal context, WSTs’ everyday life is characterized by the struggles emanating from the existing power relations and gendered hierarchical structures.
Men’s control over physical-spaces
The WSTs do not have the control over physical-spaces in school and family because of the dominance by their male co-workers and their husbands respectively. Over time, such a setting can deprive WSTs from opportunities to nurture their potential to become the “ideal teacher”.
The WSTs in this study have to work with male colleagues mainly because the nature of sciences is such that attracts mainly men. Additionally, the lower number limits the physical-spaces available for the women. Rebeka talked about the challenges of space for women teachers’ including the staff-room:
‘In our school, the majority of teachers are men. That is why the main teachers’ room is for them. The five women teachers at the school sit in a corner of the store room. Clearly this is not a conducive environment within which to work’.
During the field study, I found the room for the female teachers had mosquitoes, was dirty and was used as a store. This inequality in the use of space between males and females automatically leads to unequal gender power relations among workers.
Male domination in the control and use of spaces is also found in the home. The married WSTs do not get enough physical-space to prepare for lessons because of their husband’s control over all the rooms in the house. This might have something to do with ‘patrilocal residence’, where the women try to resettle in a place which is already demarcated by the men (Kabeer 2000:269). Thus, by drawing on Scott’s (2010) gender analysis, this paper argues that the very meaning of being “women” is established in certain contexts and physical-spaces.
Decision-making in school: men as gatekeepers
The male teachers are gatekeepers in the decision-making process for the WSTs due to the competitive structured work context.
When the WSTs start to handle any official responsibilities, the male teachers feel threatened and say that women are not capable of dealing with ‘complex’ official tasks. Some WSTs claim that the authority often gets influenced by male dominance and this keeps women teachers from making several important decisions at the school. Drawing on Connell’s (1995) idea, these situations can be viewed as a process that legitimizes patriarchy in the school context. The men at the school pretend to be “caring” by considering the ‘activities of each sex as normative-complementary in character’ where ‘the strength of the man is complementary to the frailty of the woman’ (Gherardi 1995:134). Clearly, male teachers put in place barriers that limit women’s involvement in decision-making process because of power they yield from their privileged positions at school. This is also a way to regulate “gendered identities” in school according to Dunne (2007).
Issues around of decision-making has been highlighted by WST Shohag, aged 25 who said that the senior male teachers never gave her the opportunity to teach physics class for grade X although she had her Bachelor’s degree in Physics. She has instead relegated to teach General Science to grade VII-VIII. She is not happy about this because during her recruitment she was asked to teach physics and not general science. This is an indication of the misogynistic nature of the senior male teachers who do not want to ‘lose their control’ over their specialized classes at higher grades. Thus, unequal gender-relations are forming within the organizational structure (Gherardi 1995). The ‘educationist’ also stated that: ‘In Bangladesh, most of the science teachers are male who are making all the decisions in the department on behalf of the schools’. Gherardi (1995:103) noted that, in masculine organizational culture ‘gender relations’ are formed ‘based on a normative order which reproduced femaleness and maleness through socialization’. Ultimately the organization forms the gender power hierarchies by categorizing the meanings of “men” and “women” within the school (Scott 2010).
Feminine traits normalizes subordination
Having feminine attributes often ‘normalizes’ the subordination of WSTs’ within the masculine organizational culture and this is manifested by the presence of power hierarchies among senior and junior teachers.
Some of the WSTs are very sensitive, caring and polite in the way they conduct themselves towards their senior co-workers because of the culture that demands respect for the elders. Unfortunately, such ‘attributes of femininity are ingrained in the subordination relationship’ even among the women co-workers ‘because of a political and organizational social dynamic’ (Gherardi 1995:15). Data revealed, over time some of the senior women teachers adopt the masculine organizational culture and that is why ‘when a woman achieves high status, it becomes legitimate to suspect that she has lost out on femininity’ (Gherardi 1995:135). In such cases, the senior women teachers normalize their dominance over the junior women teachers who come across as ‘more feminine’ by virtue of their status which is tied to their young age. A senior WST Monoara said that, the good rapport among the women teachers allows her to demand more work especially from the junior women teachers. It is not actually the lack of women’s solidarity since ‘in the name of solidarity, similarity has been exalted above difference. This threatens the cohesion of a group of women because it lays bare the problems of power and leadership’ (Gherardi 1995:90). In this case the ‘status’ of the female teachers works as important factor which allows them to have different lived experiences even among the subordinated groups which is consistent with the views of Davis (2008). A headmaster has also touched on this aspect of feminine traits among junior WSTs like ‘politeness’ which makes it easier for the school authority to work with them. By drawing on Connell’s (1999) argument on “women’s subordination”, it is clear that the relationship between powerlessness and femininity leads to a process of subordination which tends to be normalized in everyday life.
Sexual harassment: taking shape in a context of gender hierarchy
In the patriarchal society, the physical strength and dominance of men over women often leads sexual harassment in all spheres – school, home or community of the life of WSTs.
This study revealed that the problem of sexual harassment within or outside the school campus is more common in semi-urban areas than urban areas. WST Shohag said that, when she was a student she loved to organize science fairs and volunteered to do where she had to work until late at school. In the evenings, on her way home, she was accosted several times by the local boys. She stated that: ‘It affected my studies. Sometimes I felt guilty for not working in science fairs…I started to change my route from school to home; it took almost 1hr to get back to home…’ The aforementioned WST has expressed her challenges during her school days. Such harassment affected her ability to effectively organize science fairs. Thus the legitimacy of nurturing the power of “being men” depicted by Connell (1999), can lead to such sexual harassment of even grown women by young men.
Lack of financial strength and politics of time and money
Despite having the potential to earn the same as men in the society, the married WSTs are controlled by a societal structure where they earn less than male science teachers. Such a state is further complicated by normative ideologies about the inferior value of house work. The lack of financial muscle has put the WSTs in the lower echelons of power in comparison to their male science teachers and their position within the family.
WSTs like their counterparts in the other non-government secondary schools are paid between, 5000 to 16000 Bangladeshi Taka. The minimum wage for this profession is about the same as a garment worker but much less than that of government employees (Devnath 2013). Male science teachers bring in more money than the WSTs because they have more time on their hands to do private tuitions which is not easy for a WST owing to obligations within the home. WST Luna stated that: ‘I want to help my husband to manage the family expenses but I cannot do tuitions or extra coaching like my male colleagues because I have to look after my kids after school’. There is a sense of dissatisfaction around the politics of time and money where for example WSTs are not encouraged to earn the same or more than their husbands. Another teacher Mahbuba said, ‘I have the potential to earn the same as my husband but I have other duties at home’. Kabeer (2000:286) also found, the politics of time and money were ‘reported most frequently by married women’ and the fact that they cannot get their husbands to do their fair share of works around the house. Existing power relation in a family often normalizes women’s lower earning power than that of men and legitimizes men’s masculinity by maintaining the bread-winner identity (Cha and Thebaud 2009). Therefore, such societal structures exercise the power relations in both school and family where men are found in the upper hierarchies, earning more money than the woman.
Conclusions: revisiting WSTs’ challenges in relation to masculinity of science
Taking a broader view of WSTs’ experience from secondary non-government co-education schools, this research presents several critical points on the debate about masculinity of science in the secondary education sector of Bangladesh. Firstly, the number of WSTs in secondary co-education schools is few all over the country and even fewer in semi-urban areas compared to urban areas. Such limited representation in science makes life challenging for a WST and is more visible in semi-urban areas which is manifested through cultural norms. These norms more often than not conform to the ‘masculinization’ of science. Secondly, WSTs in Bangladesh are found more likely to engage in biological science which is stereotypically believed to have less masculine attributes and much suitable to the gender-roles of a woman. WSTs’ interest in the subject, the teaching profession, their performance and success highly depends not only on the family members but also on the organizational culture in the school. Some of the gender-roles like, cooking and nurturing children are found more stereotypically embedded in the experiences of semi-urban WSTs’ than those in the urban. Thirdly, the double burden for married WSTs in schools and at home has been revealed in several ways: how they have suffered because of perceived ‘masculine image’ of science is directly relates to how women are viewed culturally and socially. Women have often positioned themselves in the lower strata of gender power dynamics because of such gender-specific constraints. Unmarried WSTs have less pressure when it comes to domestic chores and therefore they have more time and space to pursue their interests in the sciences. When talking about gender power dynamics, the geographical differences come to play especially in the realm of sexual harassment as experienced by WSTs where this problem is much more pronounced in semi-urban areas than the urban areas.
Overall, this study has provided a glimpse into the intersectional gendered experiences of WSTs within their schools, families and community regarding gender-stereotypes of science and masculinity. The study revealed that, in the structure of classic patriarchal society it is difficult, but not impossible, for WSTs to become role models teacher due to their socially prescribed gender-roles, symbolic representation, gender-specific norms and constraints in institutions. To ensure the credibility of the findings, this paper highlights several narratives about the WSTs; largely coming from middle-class families which acknowledge that this issue is multifaceted and diverse.
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