Imagine you are a 5-year-old girl sitting in your classroom at school. The teacher is giving a new lesson on math. You are excited ⏤ you love math. You pay rapt attention while the teacher explains the concept. As you begin working on your questions, you struggle a bit. You know, you can figure it out if you just keep trying. You raise your hand to ask the teacher for help. From the back of the room, you hear another student whisper, “Girls aren’t good at math. They always need help.” You are shocked. You’ve never heard of such an idea. You press forward with your work, but that thought stays in the back of your mind.
We all know these gender stereotypes in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) exist, and we can see the consequences of them in the statistics. Fewer women enroll in college degree programs centered on STEM disciplines ⏤ for example, only 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer and information science majors are women. This disparity in higher education plays out in the job world as well. Women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Less than one-third of computer scientists and less than one-quarter of engineers are women, even though women make up almost half of the workforce (in the U.S.). It’s likely that gender stereotypes play a role in these labor force statistics. However, the origins of these stereotypes are complex and have been entrenched for decades. How do these stereotypes emerge and how can we, as parents, help combat their impact so that our daughters have an equal opportunity to pursue a STEM career?
How do Gender Stereotypes Emerge?
Although subtle, the origins of gender stereotypes related to STEM skills such as spatial ability begin almost from birth. Some research shows that evidence of gender stereotypes can be seen as early as five months old. Among baby girls whose parents endorse gender stereotypes regarding STEM skills, differences can be seen in spatial skills compared to parents who do not endorse such beliefs. Researchers believe this difference is not due to innate abilities but rather to gender-based distinctions in the types of toys offered to boys and girls. Girls are more likely to be given toys that foster caring skills (e.g., dolls or stuffed animals), while boys are more likely to be offered toys that encourage STEM-type skills like blocks or trucks. Although these simple toy choices may seem unimportant, studies confirm a link between toy preferences in childhood (i.e., spatial versus non-spatial) and the choice of a field of study later in life.
Gender stereotypes related to STEM skills seem to only solidify as children mature. Studies find that by age 6, children already hold gender-stereotyped beliefs about STEM fields. Across genders, significantly more children held the belief that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering. Perhaps not surprisingly, this pattern of gender stereotypical beliefs was held through adolescence.
While some may argue that gender stereotypes don’t necessarily dictate actions or choices, in the case of STEM-related stereotypes, there does seem to be a link. Research suggests that when girls hold gender stereotypes regarding their interest in STEM fields, they go on to show less interest in pursuing STEM fields of study. Interestingly, scholars find that this pattern of reduced interest in STEM fields among girls with stereotypical attitudes doesn’t necessarily have to do with a belief that girls are less skilled in STEM. Instead, researchers believe that this lack of interest in STEM fields has more to do with a lack of a sense of belonging among girls.
The issue of gender stereotypes in STEM also represents a bit of a vicious circle of consequences. Since girls see fewer women in STEM fields, both in their community and in the media, this furthers the stereotype that “STEM is not for girls.” Additionally, with fewer role models to emulate, girls don’t have as much exposure to what it looks like to be a woman in a STEM field. This may further undermine a sense of belonging for women in STEM careers.
Combating Gender Stereotypes
Strategies to overcome gender stereotypes must be as multifaceted as the stereotypes themselves. Since gender stereotypes begin at an early age in children, strategies to overcome them need to begin early and follow children through their stages of development and education. Let’s consider a few possible strategies across their life course:
- Open toy access: Although all children have toy preferences, allowing children to have open access to toys would hopefully allow less gendered playtime. Instead of only offering dolls and animals to girls and trucks and blocks to boys, allowing children of both genders access to all types of toys will foster their innate interests without the reinforcing of adult notions of gendered toys. Similarly, research shows that gender-neutral toys tend to offer the most developmental opportunities for learning.
- Foster a growth mindset: Having a growth mindset ⏤ the idea that ability isn’t fixed and can be improved with effort and practice ⏤ is helpful for any child, but it can be especially helpful in overcoming gender stereotypes. When children hold a growth mindset, especially girls in this case, they know that learning involves struggle and it’s not all about just “looking smart” or being “a math person.” Scholars suggest that fostering a growth mindset, particularly among girls, can help them feel empowered to push through struggles and continue to pursue STEM fields.
- Address gender stereotypes directly: Although parents do not have complete control over how scientists and engineers are portrayed in books or the media, we can openly discuss gender stereotypes when we see them. As you watch shows or read books, point out if you see STEM fields portrayed in a gender stereotypical way. Help children understand that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians can be women or men. Additionally, it’s helpful to monitor children’s self-talk around these topics as well. If you hear your daughter expressing that “I’m bad at math” or your son contending that “coding is more for boys,” encourage them to widen their perspective to see all the possibilities for girls and boys.
Helping Children Fulfill Their Potential
Gender stereotypes in STEM probably won’t change overnight. However, each generation of parents who help make their children more aware of all the opportunities in STEM, regardless of gender, will help us move toward that day. When all children believe they have the ability to pursue their education in any field of interest, they are more likely to meet their full potential.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.