Who becomes a biologist? New thesis on norms and identity-building in higher education biology


In Sweden and many other European countries, the number of women in higher biology education at bachelor's level is around 60-70%. When you reach professor’s level, however, the number has dropped to around 30%. What is happening on the way? Why does the number of women decrease the higher up the career ladder you get?

Katerina Pia Günter. 
Photo: Petra Korall

In a new thesis, Katerina Pia Günter examines norms, identity-building and the culture of higher education biology, and how this contributes to who feels included and excluded. Her research shows that in higher biology education there are normative ideas about who becomes a biologist – ideas that are based on narrow masculine norms of science. But she also notes that there is some space for challenging these norms and create alternative paths into the world of biology, as well as contributing to a more diverse subject.

By analysing study motivation texts, teaching statements, and through interviews with biology students in Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom, Katerina investigates how students and teachers negotiate identities and figure worlds of higher education biology.

- When I myself did biology, I became very curious about what’s going on in higher biology education. It became so clear to me that there are processes that invite some and exclude others, says Katerina. There is a lot of research on physics and science identity, but very little how to understand science identity within biology. And as opposed to physics, biology is a female-dominated subject, which makes it very interesting to see how norms around science get into the identity work here as well.

Just like other natural science subjects, there are ideas within biology about what science is, how to become a legitimate biologist and what is seen as a "natural" way into the world of biology. Through analysing study motivational text by first-year biology students, Katerina found different imagined identity trajectories and narratives around being/becoming a biologist.

- A narrative that was quite common and which I, and also some students, call a straight path into biology, was to always have been someone interested in science, even as a child. It was also common state that you want to focus on something very narrow within the field of biology, to show some kind of taken for granted brilliance, talent, intelligent and that these things, taken together, shows that you have all the prerequisites to become a researcher.

The qualities that are rewarded in this imagined view of science - intelligence, talent, rationality - are traditionally associated with masculinity. But there were also other, alternative narratives present in the study motivation texts that Katerina analysed.

- There were also students who drew on a different narrative, what I call a backpack biology path. That path into biology is more exploratory, you gather experience and knowledge but you do not have a very narrow goal and you challenge the notion that you need to be a researcher to be a legitimate part of biology practice. Many who use this narrative express an interest in how things are interconnected and how we can make society and the whole world a better place.

For female students, it was more common to identify with the backpack biology path in study motivation texts, and as such, to imagine participation in broader ways.

- Those masculine norms of brilliance and talent, the narrow focus, the rational, the objective – it is challenged with the help of emotions, interest, and well, to bring all the experiences with you in a backpack and then see how it turns out.

Through looking at teaching statements Katerina found that many biology teachers in higher education also related to narrow masculine norms of science.

- Research is valued very highly, you have to be a researcher first and foremost and being a teacher is secondary, and that approach contributes to building a kind of hierarchy.

According to this model, learning becomes passive, the students become mere recipients of the teacher's research expertise and students who are not explicitly focused on research are weeded out. But there are those who challenge the norm among teachers too, who put the student in focus and create space for more interactive learning practices.

Feeling included or excluded is something that is difficult to talk about and put your finger on, Katerina explains, but the potential career impact for those who do not identify with the normative, or act according to the norm, is significant.

- You constantly have to relate to the dominant discourse on how to do biology, for example by "fake it 'til you make it", or by showing "dedication through sacrifice", to show that you are prepared to sacrifice something to become a legitimate part of this culture. It can be your health, your private life, a feminine way of expressing yourself, or other parts of your identity.

- It is not so easy to see those processes when you are a part of the culture and it is difficult to talk about how you and others are treated. It may be easier to talk about physics in this way, for example, because it is well-known that it is a male-dominated environment, but in biology it is much subtler. For example, it can be about taking a diving course with only men, and if you are there as either the only woman or queer person and you’re bullied or alienated, then it could impact your entire career, because you may no longer feel that you can, or want to become a marine biologist.

But Katerina still emphasises that there is space in biology education to challenge the norms, for alternative paths into the world of biology and for a more inclusive biology education.

- The fact that there are more women than men in biology education at undergraduate level, does not mean that biology as a subject is an exception where we have solved all problems, we definitely have not. But my research shows that there are alternatives to the normative and that we can work for a biology practice where everyone is included. Especially the students I interviewed contributed a lot with their perspective on how we could do better, and it is really something that I have learned and that I try to use in my teaching. As one of the students I interviewed said, biology, and really the whole academic world, needs to get better at seeing the person behind it, and that is really the quintessence of my thesis.

Katerina Pia Günter defends her thesis on 20 May at 9:15 in Geijersalen

Last modified: 2021-09-10