By guest blogger Elizabeth Kirkham
Have you heard the riddle about the doctor? A father and his son are involved in a car accident and taken to different hospitals, the boy to a children’s hospital and the father to the general hospital. When the boy arrives at hospital, the doctor on call is shocked, saying “I can’t treat this boy, he’s my son!” The question is: who’s the doctor? The answer, as with many riddles, is obvious once you know it: the doctor is the boy’s mother. Years ago when I first heard this riddle, I was stumped, even though the only doctor I had contact with in my own life happened to be a woman. The very fact that this question works as a riddle is testament to the strength of negative stereotypes surrounding women’s scientific abilities.
Women who take degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects do just as well as their male colleagues, even though they are far outnumbered by them: in the UK, only 14 per cent of engineering and technology students, and 17 per cent of computer science students are women. The picture is similar in the USA, where Catherine Riegle-Crumb and Karisma Morton carried out a study, published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, to investigate why the numbers are so low.
The researchers focused on the time of life when occupational ambitions begin to take shape: adolescence. Adolescence is also a time when, for better or worse, individuals become increasingly conscious of their peers’ opinions. In light of this, it stands to reason that teenagers’ decisions about their future could be influenced by the attitudes of those around them, both positively and negatively.
The researchers first measured the science and gender-related attitudes of male and female students aged 13 to 14 in science classrooms across a number of schools. On average, just two per cent of girls believed that boys were better at science and 29 per cent of girls were very confident in their science ability, but 16 per cent of boys endorsed gender/STEM stereotypes.
Then the researchers caught up with the same students a year later, and asked them to indicate which subjects they were likely to study at university. The findings differed markedly by STEM subject: of those intending to study biological or physical sciences, slightly more (52 per cent vs. 48 per cent) were girls, and for these subjects, neither the proportion of boys endorsing stereotypes nor the proportion of girls with high science confidence influenced girls’ intentions to pursue these subjects.
By contrast, only 33 per cent of students intending to study computer science or engineering were girls. Crucially, girls’ intentions to study these subjects were influenced by their classroom environments, decreasing as the proportion of male classroom peers with stereotypical views increased, and increasing as the proportion of female peers who were very confident in their scientific ability increased. Boys’ intentions to study STEM subjects were not affected by these factors.
These new findings suggest social attitudes swirling around the classroom are affecting girls’ scientific ambitions in important ways. But if we can’t eradicate gender stereotypes, what can we do?
The findings give us an answer: provide girls with positive role models, whether these are female peers who are confident in their scientific abilities, or women scientists who can talk about their achievements and passion for their fields. Initiatives such as the WISE campaign and Inspiring the Future facilitate opportunities for women to speak to young people about their own careers and areas of interest. And there is reason to be optimistic – the girls in this research were not deterred from studying biological or physical sciences, despite the presence of unhelpful stereotypes in their classrooms. With the right support and guidance, it may not be long before we can say the same about other STEM subjects as well.
Main photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch, reproduced here under licence.
Post written by Elizabeth Kirkham for BPS Research Digest. Elizabeth is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, where she is part of the Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab. Her research uses EEG to examine the effects of childhood stress on the adult brain. Elizabeth has previously worked for the journal eLife writing accessible summaries of scientific articles, and in 2014 she won first prize in the Access to Understanding science writing competition. She can be found on Twitter @EK_Neuro.