Crushing gender stereotypes: Inspiring girls to pursue STEM
Parents and teachers need to create environments that support girls in STEM. Source: Shutterstock

There still aren’t nearly enough women being represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and numerous reasons are at play for this.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) notes the reasons for this include negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math, which negatively affects their test performance; an unconscious bias that limits women’s progress in the field (e.g. many associate science and math fields with “male” and humanities and arts fields with “female”), among others.

Research on children’s perceptions of scientists over several decades provide insights into their perceptions of gender‐science stereotypes.

In the study, nearly 5,000 elementary school students who were mostly from the US and Canada were asked to draw a scientist. Results showed that children mostly identified the role with men. The drawings collected from 1966 to 1977 almost exclusively depicted male scientists; only 28 children (0.6 percent of the sample) drew a female scientist.

“This limited view of scientists might have restricted children’s science‐related educational and career aspirations, to the extent that children did not identify with such depictions,” said researchers.

While children drew female scientists more often in later decades – but less often among older children – the study notes that children still associate science with men as they grow older.

“These results may reflect that children observe more male than female scientists in their environments, even though women’s representation in science has increased over time,” said researchers.

The poor gender parity is a blow to the world as females have just as much to contribute to the growing field as men. Since the cards seem stacked against girls from a young age, how do you get girls to see themselves as future scientists and STEM professionals?

Both teachers and parents have a role to play in creating the right environment that supports girls. These include:

Promote books and films that represent women in the field

In 2017, a Microsoft survey found that young girls in Europe become interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11, but quickly lose interest when they’re 15. Girls may have a lack of exposure to female role models in the field, potentially making them less interested in pursuing STEM careers in the future.

However, both parents and teachers can tackle this problem by sharing books and films that feature female role models in the field to continue inspiring students and children. For example, in Black Panther, T’Challa wouldn’t have successfully fought his battles without the tech brilliance of his sister Shuri, who made a range of cool weapons that helped her brother.

Encourage a ‘growth mindset’

Encountering challenging problems is part and parcel of math and science, but students with a growth mindset believe that they can develop the intelligence to master and solve these problems. Source: Shutterstock

An AAUW report notes: “Individuals with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe that intelligence is static. In contrast, individuals with a ‘growth mindset’ believe that intelligence can be developed. Because of this they want to learn more and, therefore, tend to embrace challenges, persist when they encounter obstacles, see effort as a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and be inspired by the success of others.”

When girls believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence, they may be more likely to lose confidence and disengage from science and engineering when they encounter difficulties in their course work.

So, in instances where negative stereotypes about girls in STEM fields persist, it becomes important for parents and teachers to encourage girls’ achievement in the area, identify stereotype threats in addition to encouraging them to develop a growth mindset to foster their interest in math and science.

Invite female STEM professionals to the classroom

A UK study found that “the number of UK girls interested in STEM increases when they have role models compared to those who do not”.   

So, while it’s nice for female students to read and see female STEM professionals in materials such as classroom posters, books and even movies, another option for teachers to encourage girls’ interest in STEM may be as simple as inviting female STEM professionals to the classroom to add more personalisation, or to encourage students to look for female professionals in the field to interview as an individual project.

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