Some schoolchildren getting their learn on

Stereotypes in STEM start by age six, study suggests

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The perception that boys are more interested than girls in computer science and engineering starts as young as age six, according to a new US study.

Researchers at University of Houston College of Education (UH) and the University of Washington surveyed nearly 2,500 students from first through 12th grade, from both 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 per cent of the students believed girls were less interested in engineering than boys were, while 9 per cent believed girls were more interested in the subject. Regarding computer science, 51 per cent thought girls had less interest, while 14 per cent 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 per cent of computer scientists and 15 per cent of engineers.

The early disparities identified in the school age study may be one reason why girls and women are underrepresented in these STEM career fields, according to study co-author Allison Master, assistant professor at UH.

“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 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 programmes designed to encourage girls’ sense of belonging in STEM.

The laboratory experiments gave children a choice between computer science activities. Fewer girls (35 per cent) chose a computer science activity they believed boys were more interested in, compared to the 65 per cent 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.

Co-authors on the study were 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. The study - 'Gender stereotypes about interests start early and cause gender disparities in computer science and engineering' - has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The skills shortage within the engineering industry is widely acknowledged as an issue in many countries, including the UK. A group of over 150 world-leading engineers, scientists and technology giants, led by the IET, recently called on the UK government to plug the nation’s growing STEM skills gap, which is estimated to be costing the economy £1.5bn per year.

A separate report also revealed how ‘career deflection’ leads women, ethnic minorities and other intersectional groups to leave the engineering profession prematurely. Any efforts to encourage a deeper engagement with STEM subjects for both genders at an early age would undoubtedly prove hugely beneficial.

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