Kids and teens think girls aren’t interested in computers, study finds


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22 November 2021

Children as young as 6 develop the idea that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering – stereotypes that can extend into late adolescence and contribute to a gap gender in STEM college courses and related careers.

New search from the University of Houston and the University of Washington, published Nov. 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores the gender-based beliefs that young children and adolescents have about interest in STEM fields. The majority of children believe that girls are less interested in computer science and engineering than boys, according to the study.

“The gender stereotypes that STEM is for boys start in elementary school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made the decision not to pursue a degree in computer science and engineering. because they feel that they have no place ”, declared Master Allison, assistant professor of psychology, health and learning sciences at the University of Houston and lead author of the study.

The PNAS study involved four different studies – a mix of surveys and experiments designed to capture the beliefs of a racially diverse sample of children and adolescents in Grades 1 through 12. The researchers wanted to focus on interest, drawing on previous studies on ability stereotypes, to learn how sexist stereotypes about who love – not just for who is ‘good’ – computer science and engineering can affect a child’s sense of belonging and willingness to participate. Such information can influence a young person’s motivation over the long term, the researchers point out, and can deter them from trying an activity or taking a class.

As of 2019, national statistics reveal that women are under-represented in some popular and lucrative STEM careers: United States Census Bureau statistics show that only about 25% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers were women.

In the first two studies, researchers interviewed more than 2,200 children and adolescents to assess their beliefs about computer science and engineering. The surveys used terms and phrases that students were familiar with at school, such as “computer coding” for computer science or, for engineering, “to design and create large structures such as roads and bridges. “.

Researchers found that just over half (51%) of children thought girls were less interested in computers than boys, and almost two-thirds (63%) said girls were less interested in computers. engineering. In comparison, 14% of children said girls are more interested in computers than boys, and 9% said girls are more interested in engineering.

Subsequent lab studies provided a smaller sample of children with two different activities to choose from. The results showed that girls were significantly less interested in a computer activity when told that boys were more interested in it than girls (35% of girls chose the activity), compared to one in which they were told that boys and girls were equally interested (65% of girls chose this activity).

While surveys have shown the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes around interest in computer science and engineering, the designed experiments have shown how stereotypes can affect the sense of belonging, which can influence motivation, co -author Andrew Meltzoff noted.

“Big surveys told us that children have absorbed the cultural stereotype that girls are less interested in computers and engineering. In the experiments, we focused on the causal mechanisms and consequences of stereotypes, ”said Meltzoff, professor of psychology at UW and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “We found that labeling an activity in a stereotypical way influenced children’s interest in it and their willingness to take it home – the mere presence of the stereotype influenced children dramatically. This made us understand the pernicious effect of stereotypes on children and adolescents.

And that’s important, added the co-author Sapna Cheryan, professor of psychology at UW, because if fewer girls feel they belong, then fewer girls could pursue studies in computer science or engineering until school and beyond. This can lead to gender disparities in STEM fields and even worsen the pay gap.

“The current gender disparities in IT and engineering careers are troubling as these careers are lucrative, high-level and influence many aspects of our daily lives.

The dearth of gender and racial diversity in these areas may be one of the reasons why many products and services have had negative consequences for women and people of color, ”Cheryan said.

Teachers and parents can help challenge stereotypes by providing high-quality computer and engineering activities early in elementary school – and by encouraging girls’ participation, the authors note.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, and the Bezos Family Foundation.

For more information, contact Meltzoff at [email protected], Cheryan at [email protected], or Master at [email protected]

This release includes material from S. Sara Tubbs of the University of Houston.

Tag (s): Andrew Meltzoff • College of Arts and Sciences • Department of Psychology • I-LABS • Sapna Cheryan


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