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Stereotypes in STEM Fields Start by Age Six

University of Houston researcher addressing gender stereotypes in computer science and engineering

The perception that boys are more interested than girls in computer science and engineering starts as young as age six, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That may be one reason why girls and women are underrepresented in these STEM career fields, reports study coauthor Allison Master, assistant professor at the University of Houston (UH) College of Education.

“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,” said Master.

Researchers at UH and the University of Washington surveyed nearly 2,500 students in first through 12th grade from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The results of those studies were combined with laboratory experiments to provide important insights into how stereotypes impact children’s motivation.

More children believed girls had less interest than boys in key STEM fields. Specifically, 63 percent of the students believed girls were less interested in engineering than boys were, while 9 percent believed girls were more interested in the subject. Regarding computer science, 51 percent thought girls had less interest while 14 percent thought girls had more interest than boys.

These interest patterns play out in the job market. According to United States Census Bureau statistics, while women make up nearly half of the workforce, they account for only 25 percent of computer scientists and 15 percent of engineers.

Researchers say educators, parents, and policymakers can help close these gender gaps by introducing girls to high quality computer science and engineering activities in elementary school before stereotype endorsements take root. They also suggest educators who wish to promote girls’ interest and engagement in STEM should consider using inclusive programs designed to encourage girls’ sense of belonging in STEM.

The laboratory experiments gave children a choice between computer science activities. Fewer girls (only 35 percent) chose a computer science activity they believed boys were more interested in, compared to the 65 percent of girls who chose an activity for which they believed boys and girls were equally interested.

“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,” added Master, who directs UH’s Identity and Academic Motivation (I AM) Lab.

Coauthors on the study are 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.

- This press release was originally published on the University of Houston website