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Gender Stereotypes Can Drop Girls’ Interest in STEM by 50%, Suggests Research

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Nov 24, 2021

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Image Credit: edugirls.org

“We should look back to how humanity has seen science itself — it’s always seen as something to find, discover and invent. This is not something most cultures think women are meant to do,” Aashima Freidog, co-founder of Life of Science, once told The Swaddle.

This is a shared, understood truth at the heart of the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The domain of innovation is riddled with gender stereotypes and remains largely gated. A new research shows children start developing ideas that STEM courses are more fit for boys than girls — as early as six years old.

Published in PNAS this week, the research looked at children’s perceptions of the fields and how they grow. The findings demonstrate how gender stereotypes have a ripple effect — further affecting girls’ and women’s sense of belonging and motivation in the STEM field.

Researchers from the University of Houston College of Education and the University of Washington surveyed nearly 2,500 students ranging from first through 12th grade. The sample cut across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds; the study, however, did not account for non-binary students.

In the first level of the experiment, the researchers found that as many as 51% of students believed girls are less interested than boys in computer science. Moreover, almost 63% of all students said that girls show limited interest in engineering.

The second level included a smaller sample of children. When a group of children was told that boys are more interested in math and science, girls were 35% as likely to pick that said activity. Instead, when the group was told that girls and boys are equally interested in these fields, the chances that girls picked them rose to 65%. In other words, girls were twice more likely to choose STEM-related activities “when they’re not being told that computers are for boys,” The Next Web noted.

Interestingly, the research also mentioned the gender-interest stereotypes were… more predictive of girls’ interest than gender-ability stereotypes.” That is, the genesis of what the end goal is for girls is based more on what people think girls are interested in. “The large surveys told us that kids had absorbed the cultural stereotype that girls are less interested in computer science and engineering,” study co-author Andrew Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, said.

“We discovered that labeling an activity in a stereotyped way influenced children’s interest in it and their willingness to take it home — the mere presence of the stereotype influenced kids in dramatic ways,” Meltzoff said.


Related on The Swaddle:

Tell Me More: Talking STEM Education and Bias With the Co‑Founders of The Life of Science


The new research, along with a range of others, tugs at the lack of representation and bias that plagues the STEM field. It feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy: gender stereotypes about women result in less representation, which furthers the stereotype that men are the rightful heir to STEM fields.

Another impact of the vicious cycle is such: A 2020 research showed that female students are more likely to pick STEM fields if there are more role models. The lack of visibility, and the interest bias, once again reinforce the prevailing bias.

The nascent stage of gender stereotypes, then, is one anchored to what girls are considered to be traditionally “interested” in. Addressing this dissonance may help improve educational equity. In India, researchers have also explored a curious trend. Over the years, women’s enrolment in STEM subjects has gone up. But while Indian girls may perform well at a school level, they slowly drop off from professional opportunities or further studies. This may be due to less access to expensive coaching for exams like the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted for the IITs.

“Somehow, the reaction to this — instead of demanding a better selection process — is acceptance,” Nandita Jayaraj, co-founder of Life of Science, also said.

Moreover, researchers argue “the dearth of gender and racial diversity in these fields may be one of the reasons why many products have had negative consequences for women.” As the foundations of our world change, it is quickly coming to focus on how most technology and scientific research excludes women and gender minorities. Another research found women were excluded from most biomedical research — due to the fear of “female hormonal variation complicating the findings.” In 2018, a study found only 12% of machine learning researchers are women— “a worrying statistic for a field supposedly reshaping society,” WIRED pointed out.

The prophecy, then, is one that upholds the long tradition of gatekeeping, sexual harassment and assault, and bigotry — always keeping women and other minorities out of STEM. Based on the current findings, researchers note it is important to recalibrate how we go about STEM education. Encouraging girls to participate in computer science, engineering, math, or related activities is shown to be a step towards closing the gap.

“Science has always had gatekeepers and it has always been a place for men, by men,” Aashima Freidog noted. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

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Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.

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