Evidence-Based is a series where scientists and students in STEM clarify misconceptions and debunk misinformation about topics from their own field of study. In consideration of growing misinformation and questions surrounding fact and fiction, we aim to highlight and deconstruct evidence and research from science, and discuss ways to prevent science misconceptions.
Gender Stereotypes in STEM
By Andrea Panebianco
2nd Year graduate student, Masters in School Psychology at CUNY Queens College
Research area: Equal opportunities in education
The gender stereotype that girls and women are naturally poor at math and science, compared to boys and men is an unfortunate and widespread myth in society. Though this stereotype can easily be debunked, it is nonetheless strong and pervasive because it is tied to a number of social and cultural misconceptions and factors.
The stereotype can largely be attributed to a wide gender gap of women students and researchers within the STEM field. In fact, research shows that a country’s view on gender equality in the STEM field is strongly related to how large their gender gap is. For instance, countries with higher gender equality beliefs are those associated with a smaller gender gap in the STEM field.
The gender stereotype myth is often perpetuated because it is falsely presumed that men possess the skills to advance in the STEM field, whereas women’s skills lie within the humanities. These differences in skills are considered “biologically driven”, which can lead to a number of girls and women believing that they are unable to pursue the STEM field. However, research suggests that the differences between males and females STEM abilities are largely shaped by social and cultural views in regard to gender. For example, the cognitive differences stereotypically attributed to men and women (i.e. women’s advanced verbal skills and men’s increased spatial skills) are small and can be explained by different cognitive strategy choices. That being said, when females are exposed to an environment with increased negative female-stereotypes, their abilities to formulate problem solving strategies decreases, as do their math performances. This indicates that rather than biological factors, math strategies and performance are largely contributed to social and environmental factors, such as the availability of negative stereotypes (e.g., girls being weaker at science and problem solving).
When faced with these gender stereotypes, adolescent girls in particular internalize them, believing that their skills within the STEM field are not as innate as their male counterparts. While its origin is unclear and likely multifaceted, gender stereotypes in STEM still travel within our schools, peers, and families. This information is startling because schools and families have a large role in shaping a child’s or adolescent’s self-concept (i.e. the idea someone has about oneself and their strengths/weaknesses) and self-efficacy. Research demonstrates that schools that promote the gender stereotype in the STEM field can often give male students more attention in STEM classes, and even deter female students from STEM careers. Parent influence is also a large factor that can promote the gender stereotype. Research demonstrates that female adolescents’ motivation for math and science is strongly related to peer and mother support; this motivation is then strongly related to performance.
Together, this research shows that motivation, self-concept, and achievement within the STEM field are largely influenced by cultural misconceptions and false perceptions regarding gender inequality, and not underlying biological differences.
Women of color unfortunately receive the compounded effect of racial and gender stereotyping within the STEM field which create larger barriers for them. One of the most important, maladaptive aspects of the gender stereotype myth is its multifaceted effects on women of color. These pervasive myths and stereotypes have regrettably aided in the underrepresentation of women of color in the STEM field. The depth of cultural influences on WOC in the stem field are much more complex and vast, including the effects of societal and institutional inequalities. For a more detailed understanding of the multi-layered experiences WOC in the stem field, please read: Inside the Double Bind: A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Undergraduate and Graduate Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics written by Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield (2011).
Education is the best route to combat gender stereotypes. The first thing to understand is that there is not enough research to support a biological difference between men and women within the STEM field. Whatever “difference” may be seen can easily be explained by different cognitive strategies employed or social support. Simple changes such as school and parent support to girls and adolescents can have a large effect on their willingness and self-concept in the STEM field. Increasing parent support, as well as decreasing the spread of this myth within schools, can increase female motivation in the field, and therefore productivity. Understanding the issues and solutions regarding this myth is the first step to eradicating it from potential, female STEM pursuers.
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