Stereotypes about girls deter many from pursuing computer careers
Through Master Allison Assistant Professor of Education, University of Houston, Andrew N. Meltzoff Professor of Psychology, University of Washington, Sapna Cheryan Professor of Psychology, University of Washington
Peer-reviewed research has found that stereotypes about girls’ interest in STEM – or lack of interest – are quite common among young people today.
Stereotypes about what boys and girls supposedly like aren’t hard to come by.
But as researchers specializing in motivation, identity and cognitive development, we believe that society has largely ignored another harmful stereotype. And that’s the idea that girls are less interested in STEM than boys.
In our peer-reviewed research – published in November 2021 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – we have found that these stereotypes about girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math – or lack thereof – are quite common among young people today. We also found that these stereotypes actually have an effect on girls’ motivation and sense of belonging in computer science and engineering.
Areas like mathematics are close to gender parity – i.e. an approximately equal number of men and women – and women are in fact over-represented in fields like biology among college graduates in the United States.
Yet the country still fails to diversify IT and engineering. Only about 1 in 5 computer science and engineering degrees are awarded to women.
Our research shows that societal stereotypes linking these areas to boys and men act as a barrier that keeps girls and young women away. There have been many conversations about the harm caused through stereotypes about natural talent, who claim that men are better than women at STEM. But what could be even more damaging to girls’ motivation are stereotypes that men are more interested than women in these activities and careers. These stereotypes can make girls feel like they don’t belong to them.
Survey children’s perceptions
For our study, our first step was to determine whether children and adolescents believe these societal stereotypes. We surveyed 2,277 young people in Grades 1 to 12 in 2017 and 2019 about their interest in computer science and engineering. The majority of young people said that boys were more likely than girls to be interested in these areas. Most young people – 63% – believed that girls were less interested in engineering than boys. Only 9% think that girls are more interested in engineering than boys. These âstereotypes of interest,â if you will, have been endorsed by young people from a variety of backgrounds, including black, white, Asian and Hispanic youth.
They have been approved by children from the age of 6, in the first grade. These beliefs about gender interests were also more common than stereotypes about abilities, according to which boys are more talented than girls in these areas.
We also found that these stereotypes of interest were linked to poorer outcomes for girls. The more a typical girl in our study believed in these stereotypes favoring boys, the less motivated she was in computer science and engineering. This was not the case with the typical boy. The more he believed in these stereotypes, the more motivated he was.
Effects on motivation
We also performed two laboratory experiments using a benchmark random assignment model to see if the stereotypes of interest have causal effects on motivation. We told the kids about two activities they could try. The only difference between the activities was that an activity – one that was chosen at random – was linked to a stereotype that girls were less interested than boys in that activity.
The other activity was unrelated to such a stereotype. If children preferred one activity to another, we might infer that the stereotype made a difference in their preferences. We have found that stereotypes of interest can actually lead to a decrease in girls’ motivation for computer activities.
Only 35% of the girls preferred stereotypical activity over non-stereotypical activity. These stereotypes – which favored boys in this case – were not a problem for the boys, who showed no preference. There was no gender gap when there was no stereotype – a gender gap only appeared when the activity was stereotyped.
Why are stereotypes of interest so powerful? Interesting stereotypes can make girls believe: if boys like these areas more than girls, then I won’t like those areas either. They also send a clear signal on who belongs there. Sense of belonging matters a lot for motivation, including young women in STEM fields like computer science and engineering. The weaker the girls’ sense of belonging, the lower their interest.
Whether or not these cultural stereotypes are currently true, we believe they can create a vicious cycle. Girls may miss out on opportunities because they assume that they are not or should not be interested in certain STEM fields. Unless adults purposely send girls a different message about who is in IT and engineering, we as a society discourage girls from trying these activities and finding out that they like them.
But the good news is that the lack of belonging that many girls feel in some STEM isn’t permanent. On the contrary, we believe it can be changed.
There are some easy ways to send kids a different message about those who enjoy computer science and engineering. Parents and other adults can check their hypotheses on what toys to buy girls for birthdays or holidays, or which summer camps they should attend. Girls can be shown examples of women like Aisha Evans and Debbie sterling – women who are changing the world with technology and having fun doing it.
It is not enough for girls to realize that they can do computer science and engineering. In order to change the status quo, we believe there is a need to make it known that many girls want to do these things as well.