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University of Copenhagen
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At the Faculty of Science, male teaching staff find it easier to spot talent among male students

Bias — Female students have a harder time being perceived as talented than their male classmates by male instructors. Researchers stumble upon a subconcious bias in teaching settings at one faculty.

Researchers sometimes stumble upon different results than they had anticipated.

I didn’t plan my original project as a gender study – but that’s what came out of it.

Senior Associate Professor Bjørn Friis Johannsen, University College Copenhagen


This happened to Bjørn Friis Johannsen and Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard when they were working in parallel on separate postdoc projects at Department of Science Education at the University of Copenhagen in the 2010s.

Bjørn Friis Johannsen wanted to shed light on the concept of talent in his postdoc project. He did this to generate new knowledge on how science degree programmes understand and apply the concept of talent in the universities’ teaching of natural sciences.

Henriette Tolstrup Holmegard, who is currently associate professor at the Department of Science Education at UCPH, focused on the students’ transition to working life and the challenges they encounter in their careers.

After the two researchers completed their separate postdocs in 2018, they have collaborated on writing a chapter for the book Science Identities to show what they have discovered.

Who actually has talent?

By comparing their observations, they made the unexpected discovery that gender plays a role in whether you are perceived as a good student.

Read it

Science Identities is an anthology by an international group with researchers.

Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard and Bjørn Friis Johannsen have written the chapter ‘Talent And Unlimited Devotion’.

»I interviewed many female students who experienced that they could only ask questions if they had prepared themselves really thoroughly. They also experienced that impulsive questions could have consequences for them later. For example if they wanted to continue in research projects. Their fellow students might also express disapproval for mistakes,« says Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard and continues:

»Compared to Bjørn Friis Johannsen’s project, an interesting pattern emerged: All students do not have equal access to being recognised as talented, and not everyone has an equal opportunity to recognise themselves as talented.«

The gender issue creeped up

Bjørn Friis Johannsen wanted to find out what in particular what instructors, including professors and associate professors, were looking for, when they look at a student and say ‘here is a good student’.

There is a majority of male instructors at the Faculty of Science.

»I was just surprised that in the interviews I did with associate professors on the science programmes, many of our conversations ended up being about gender. This was even though I had originally only contacted them with a view to talking about what a talented student is,« says Bjørn Friis Johannsen and continues:

»I didn’t plan my original project as a gender study. That was not my intention, but that’s what came out of it,« he says. He is now a senior associate professor at the Department of Teacher Education at University College Copenhagen.

He is critical of the whole concept of talent now:

»I recommend that we leave it alone, because I find it hard to see that it does anything good for us. If you want to talk about the purpose of the teaching and what is good for the students, you can do it in all kinds of other ways. The concept of talent limits students in many ways, and this is one of the reasons why it is difficult to be a female student in a science subject.«

No show at auditorium

Bjørn Friis Johannsen is concerned that university programmes within the natural sciences will lose talented female students. This can happen if certain norms and practices in the teaching mean that only certain students are considered to be good, or consider themselves to be good.

This creates an imbalance in terms of gender.

»In one interview, a male associate professor told me that when he came in one morning to teach, there were only three women sitting in the front row of the auditorium. The associate professor was angry that the other students did not show up. But he also knew that the three attendees had prepared, and that they understood the material. He thought therefore, that they didn’t actually need to be there at all,«  says Johannsen.

»It wasn’t that the associate professor didn’t wish the best for the three women. But when he looked at the almost empty auditorium, he automatically looked for something else. As an associate professor he was naturally interested in finding the students he thinks should be there and who might be able to continue doing research afterwards in the academic world. So he wanted this type of student in his classes – and apparently this was not the case with the three women in the front row,« says Bjørn Friis Johannsen.

Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard adds:

»The point is that some mechanisms are at play, without our being aware of them all the time. It is therefore important that we talk about them so that they become visible. This is a clear task in university pedagogy and in the courses that teaching staff at universities take.«

»I don’t tell everyone that I have chosen to study gender at university«

Female students are best ‘out in the field’

One of the goals of the two authors has been to express academic staff expectations of students and the students’ experience of their studies, in order to improve their teaching.

Bjørn Friis Johannsen often returns to a quote from an instructor who had the following view of the difference between male and female students:

»Women are good to have on field trips, because they are very thorough. And they do all their records right. But then when they come home and have to do the last piece of work and, say, describe their work in an article for a journal, they get stressed and stop working. Men just dive in at the deep end. They just go for it, even though they might be a bit messy.«

According to Bjørn Friis Johannsen however, talent is such an unspecified and undescribed concept. A male instructor primarily spots talent in something that he recognizes among his students and that he is proud of in himself. And he gives an example of what can be the consequence of this:

»Stories emerge about how there are typically two to three male students in a year cohort who are much better at asking questions after the lecture than all the others.«

Inclusive teaching needed

In ‘Science Identities’, he and Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard write that female students can be perceived as industrious, structured and organised. But that these qualities are not recognised as much as being happy-go-lucky and thinking outside the box.

And that’s unfortunate, he says:

»Even though the female students involved in our studies comply with the purpose of the teaching according to all the rules, there is the risk that they are perceived as manipulative or untrustworthy in their interest for the subject. This may lead them to think that they should not look for work in academia, but instead in the private sector, where there may be a more reasonable match between what a task is, and what it is that is merited.«

Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard adds:

»If we want students to ask offbeat questions, why isn’t that stated in the learning objectives? The talented end up being those who can read the hidden codes by themselves, and who have the opportunity to manoeuvre in them. An ongoing pedagogical development of teaching staff should therefore be central to the University of Copenhagen, just as there is also a need to create a more inclusive teaching.«