Stereotypes in STEM fields start by age six

This study was sent to me by several people. The researchers show that the – often incorrect – perception that boys are more interested than girls in computer science and engineering starts as young as age six.

Societal stereotypes that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering are endorsed by children and adolescents in a large and socioeconomically diverse sample, across multiple racial/ethnic and gender intersections, and as early as age six (first grade). Gender-interest stereotypes may contribute to subsequent gender disparities in the pursuit of these societally important fields. Addressing interest stereotypes may help improve educational equity.

From the press release:

The perception that boys are more interested than girls in computer science and engineering starts as young as age six, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That may be one reason why girls and women are underrepresented in these STEM career fields, reports study co-author Allison Master, assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Education.

“Gender-interest stereotypes that say ‘STEM is for boys’ begin in grade school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made their decision not to pursue degrees in computer science and engineering because they feel they don’t belong,” said Master.

Researchers at UH and the University of Washington surveyed nearly 2,500 students in firstthrough12th grade from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The results of those studies were combined with laboratory experiments to provide important insights into how stereotypes impact children’s motivation.

More children believed girls had less interest than boys in key STEM fields. Specifically, 63% of the students believed girls were less interested in engineering than boys were, while 9% believed girls were more interested in the subject. Regarding computer science, 51% thought girls had less interest while 14% thought girls had more interest than boys.

These interest patterns play out in the job market. According to United States Census Bureau statistics, while women make up nearly half of the workforce, they account for only 25% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers.

Researchers say educators, parents and policymakers can help close these gender gaps by introducing girls to high quality computer science and engineering activities in elementary school before stereotype endorsements take root. They also suggest educators who wish to promote girls’ interest and engagement in STEM should consider using inclusive programs designed to encourage girls’ sense of belonging in STEM.

The laboratory experiments gave children a choice between computer science activities. Fewer girls (only 35%) chose a computer science activity they believed boys were more interested in, compared to the 65% of girls who chose an activity for which they believed boys and girls were equally interested.

“It’s time for all stakeholders to be united in sending the message that girls can enjoy STEM just as much as boys do, which will help draw them into STEM activities,” added Master, who directs UH’s Identity and Academic Motivation (I AM) Lab.

Abstract of the paper:

Societal stereotypes depict girls as less interested than boys in computer science and engineering. We demonstrate the existence of these stereotypes among children and adolescents from first to 12th grade and their potential negative consequences for girls’ subsequent participation in these fields. Studies 1 and 2 (n = 2,277; one preregistered) reveal that children as young as age six (first grade) and adolescents across multiple racial/ethnic and gender intersections (Black, Latinx, Asian, and White girls and boys) endorse stereotypes that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering. The more that individual girls endorse gender-interest stereotypes favoring boys in computer science and engineering, the lower their own interest and sense of belonging in these fields. These gender-interest stereotypes are endorsed even more strongly than gender stereotypes about computer science and engineering abilities. Studies 3 and 4 (n = 172; both preregistered) experimentally demonstrate that 8- to 9-y-old girls are significantly less interested in an activity marked with a gender stereotype (“girls are less interested in this activity than boys”) compared to an activity with no such stereotype (“girls and boys are equally interested in this activity”). Taken together, both ecologically valid real-world studies (Studies 1 and 2) and controlled preregistered laboratory experiments (Studies 3 and 4) reveal that stereotypes that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering emerge early and may contribute to gender disparities.

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