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Gender stereotypes are steering girls away from STEM

More female role models may help, but they’re merely a part of the solution.

A little girl hugs a tree, with a several branches that represent different branches of engineering.
More girls should embrace engineering

Engineering fields aren’t known for their gender diversity. This is especially true for computer science and software engineering.

A lack of diversity is bad in any field – having a good mix of men and women in teams improves the quality of communication, which makes teams more effective – but is even worse when it happens in computer science and software engineering, because:

Why do so few girls and women pursue careers in STEM? The authors of this week’s paper suggest that gender stereotypes may be the culprit.

Social stereotypes have numerous negative consequences. For ethnic minorities it might mean that you are . Negative stereotypes about girls’ and women’s technical abilities could discourage them from pursuing a career in engineering. But even seemingly more innocuous stereotypes, like the so-called gender-interest stereotype that girls and women are (supposedly) less interested in computer science and engineering can be harmful.

The researchers behind this week’s paper base this conclusion on a combination of two large cross-sectional surveys which establish the existence of gender-interest stereotypes (Study 1 and 2) and two controlled laboratory experiments which demonstrate their causal influence on the motivation (Study 3 and 4) to pursue engineering.

Correlation

Study 1 involved 733 children in from US schools that offer mandatory computer science programmes. All children were asked questions like “How much do most boys like computer science” and “How much do most girls like computer science”.

The results show that:

  • girls and boys both endorsed gender-interest stereotypes favouring (other) boys in computer science. Boys showed particularly strong endorsement for stereotypes.

  • when asked about their own interest in computer science, girls reported significantly lower interest in pursuing computer science than boys. Also, the more a girl endorsed gender-interest stereotypes favouring boys, the lower her own interest in pursuing computer science.

  • there is a moderate correlation between gender-ability stereotype (“how good are boys/girls at computer science?) and gender-interest stereotypes. However, the latter are endorsed significantly more strongly.

  • girls have the feeling that they don’t really belong in computer science classes and activities when they are influenced by gender-interest stereotypes that computer science is primarily for boys and/or when they are less interested in computer science themselves.

Based on these findings one might conclude that the stereotype that girls are less interested in computer science dissuades them from developing an interest in computer science, while opposite happens for boys. This widens the gap between the two genders. However, the results cannot be easily generalised, because most of the children in this study were white (72%) and from middle- and upper-class households. This is where Study 2 comes in.

Study 2 is basically the same as Study 1, with some minor (but nevertheless important) differences:

  • The study involves 1,544 children with students in from an ethnically and economically diverse school district in the United States.

  • Survey questions are no longer limited in scope to computer science, but also cover engineering in general.

The findings from Study 2 largely confirmed those from Study 1. Moreover, the results show that endorsements of gender-interest stereotypes favouring boys in computer science start in third grade. Stereotypes favouring boys in engineering are endorsed even earlier, in first grade.

Causation

Correlation does not yet imply causation. And if there is a causal relationship it is still important to determine the direction of that causality. Are girls less interested in STEM because of gender-interest stereotypes that favour boys? Or do girls who are less interested in STEM themselves endorse gender-interest stereotypes that other girls aren’t interested in STEM?

In Study 3, 8-year old girls learned about two novel activities, which were described in an identical way. The only difference between the two descriptions is that one of the activities was described as an activity that girls are less interested in than boys. The girls were given the opportunity to take one of the activities home to work on.

As expected, the presence of a gender-interest stereotype in the description caused girls to have lower interest in an activity. Only 20% of girls chose to take home the stereotyped activity.

Study 4 replicated Study 3 and expanded it in two ways. First, it presented computer science activities. Second, its participants also included boys to examine whether gender-interest stereotypes widen the gender gap.

The results for girls were similar to those of Study 3, who were only less interested in computer science activities when described using a stereotype. On the other hand, there was no statistically significant difference between boys’ interest in the stereotyped (in favour of boys) and non-stereotyped activities.

Practical implications

The overall findings from these four studies are consistent with earlier work, which has shown that students’ academic choices are driven more by their beliefs about their interest rather than beliefs about their ability.

Gender-interest stereotypes are introduced to girls in elementary school and reinforced throughout high school. Educators who wish to promote girls’ interest in STEM should therefore introduce computer science in elementary school, using programmes and activities that are designed to counteract those stereotypes.

Summary

  1. Stereotypes that girls are less good or interested in computer science than boys affect their willingness to pursue it

  2. Children in elementary school are already influenced by gender stereotypes. This influence may compound over time

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