New study suggests STEM gender stereotypes begin as young as age six

According to a new study, the perception that boys are more interested in STEM subjects like engineering and computer science begins as early as age six.

The study carried out by researchers at University of Houston College of Education and the University of Washington collected data from nearly 2,500 students from first grade to 12th grade, from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The studies were analysed and combined with laboratory experiments to reveal how stereotypes impact the motivation of children throughout their lives.

The results found that more children believed that girls were generally less interested in STEM subjects than boys. In fact, 63% of respondents said that girls were less interested in engineering than boys. When asked about computer science, 51% thought girls were less interested and just 14% said that girls were more interested in the subject than boys.

When it came to specific subjects, the experiment gave the children a choice between computer science activities. Just 35% of girls chose a computer science activity they believed boys were more interested in, compared to 65% of girls who chose an activity they believed boys and girls were equally interested.

This is a worrying but not overly shocking result, as when we look at the percentage of women working in STEM, and specifically engineering and computer science, the gender split is still predominately male.

In the US, women make up nearly half of the workforce, but only account for 25% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers, according to United States Census Bureau statistics.

Similarly, in the UK, women also make up 47% of the workforce, but just 12% are engineers and the percentage of women employed in tech has barely moved from 15.7% in 2009 to approximately 17% today.

However, these early gender stereotypes may be one of the reasons for the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers.

Allison Master, co-author and assistant professor at University of Houston College of Education highlighted why girls may not choose to pursue STEM in high school;

“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.”

Following the results of the study, the researchers suggested a number of actions for educators, parents and government to enact to help lessen these gender stereotypes and encourage more girls to choose STEM subjects.

They suggested introducing young girls to high-quality computer science and engineering activities early on, before stereotypes have a chance to fully form. It was also suggested that educators do more to promote inclusive programmes that have been designed specifically to encourage girls to feel like they belong in STEM.

Allison Master said; “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.”

The study – ‘Gender stereotypes about interests start early and cause gender disparities in computer science and engineering’ – has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Co-authors on the study were Andrew N. Meltzoff of the University of Washington, Seattle’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences; and Sapna Cheryan, University of Washington, Seattle’s Department of Psychology.

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