Kids and teens believe girls aren’t interested in computer science — and the stereotype drives disparity

Gender stereotypes from different sources influence children from the early years of primary school, making them aspire to “traditional” male and female professional careers, according to a new study. In a new study, researchers found that kids develop ideas that girls are less interested than boys in the fields of computer science and engineering. 

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The presence of women varies widely across science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in the United States. The largest gender disparities are in engineering and computer science, much more than in other fields such as mathematics or biology. In fact, in the US, only about 25% of computer scientists are women. 

Gender disparities in engineering and computer science contribute to many societal inequities, including the existence of products and services that overlook and sometimes selectively harm women and children. Gender disparities in lucrative fields such as computer science and engineering are also a significant source of the gender wage gap in the US.

“There has been a lot of research about the negative consequences of stereotypes about ability (that boys are more talented than girls in math and science), but there has been very little research about stereotypes about interest (that boys are more interested than girls in STEM),” Allison Master, study co-author, told ZME Science. 

Looking into stereotypes

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Houston, who used a set of surveys and experiments to detect stereotypes in a group of kids and teens from grades 1 to 12. They wanted to learn how gender stereotypes about who likes sciences can affect the sense of belonging. 

The surveys included a sample of 2,200 participants, who were asked about their beliefs about computer science and engineering. The researchers used terms and phrases familiar to the students, such as “computer coding.” This was followed by lab studies with a smaller sample, who had to choose between their proffered activities. 

“Stereotypes that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering can have negative consequences for girls’ motivation to pursue these fields. The more that girls believe these stereotypes, the less interested they are in entering these fields. Telling girls about these stereotypes can cause them to become less interested,” Master told ZME Science.

The surveys showed that more than half (51%) of the students believed girls are less interested than boys in computer science, with almost two-thirds (65%) arguing that girls are less interested in engineering. On the other hand, only 14% of the children said girls are more interested than boys in computer science and 9% in engineering. 

In fact, when working with the smaller sample in the laboratory, the researchers found that girls were in fact much less interested in computer science when they were told boys were more interested in the field than girls (35% of the girls chose it) – compared to when they were told both boys and girls are equally interested (65% of the girls chose it). 

For Master, the findings have implications for both teachers and parents. “Our own stereotypes about interest may limit the opportunities we give to girls, when we assume that they won’t be interested in computer science or engineering toys or activities,” she argued, adding that something like coding and engineering toys and signing tailored at girls could help tackle some of these stereotypes. 

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

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