Gender stereotypes in STEM form early

But maybe only in boys, says a new study
Idaho National Laboratory,, CC BY 2.0
Idaho National Laboratory,, CC BY 2.0

Sex differences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields, and their related skills are a debated issue. Are they real? And are gender stereotypes born from societal belief systems or from our own biology?

Work from Melissa Hines, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, has found a role for hormones, namely testosterone, in the development of and response to gender-stereotyped behavior. By contrast, other aspects of gender stereotyping, like preference for blue or pink, appear to stem from social influences. Related to these conversations is the question of how gender stereotyping, whether biological or societal, affects participation in STEM fields.

Studies have shown sex differences in one STEM-related skill, spatial ability, or the capacity to understand the spatial relations among objects, to emerge around the age of 10. These studies find that in some spatial ability tasks, boys perform better than girls though in others, there are no consistent sex differences.

“10 is the age when studies have found children to develop awareness of stereotypes.”

Interestingly, 10 is also the age when studies have found children to develop awareness of stereotypes. And a new study from a group in the Department of Educational Neuroscience at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands looked to see if gender stereotypes in spatial ability were evident in 10-year-olds.

The researchers observed 237 children in grades 4 and 6 from six different elementary schools in the Netherlands and their work assessed two different aspects of gender stereotyping – explicit and implicit.

To determine explicit biases, the children were shown various spatial ability activities and were asked whether it was more appropriate for boys, girls, or both as well as who they thought was better skilled in the activity. Both boys and girls more often stated that they thought the activities were more appropriate for boys and that boys were more skilled in them.

Gender differences in implicit biases

However, the findings weren’t so clear cut when it came to the implicit gender beliefs. To test this, the researchers had children sort boy and girl names as well as spatial words, like “numbers,” “constructing,” and “measuring” and language words, such as “letters,” “sentences,” and “reading”.

In one round, the sorting instructions grouped the boy names with spatial words and girl names with language words – groupings that fit with the stereotype. In the second round, these groupings were switched, opposite of the stereotype. The idea being that if the child held an implicit belief of the gender stereotype, grouping the names and words as such would be easier and quicker than grouping them in opposition to the stereotype.

While the boys’ implicit beliefs matched their explicit ones, strongly associating boy names with spatial words, the test showed that girls associated these words just as strongly with girl names as they did with boy names. These findings suggest that while girls say they think boys are better, they don’t necessarily believe it. An interesting detail that could have an impact on girls in STEM subjects.

Gwyn Gaafary, a middle school teacher in the U.S., teaches engineering and math to 8th graders. It may seem surprising that engineering is a class offered to middle schoolers, but this school is not your typical middle school. It’s a STEAM school, focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

Gaafary has also taught engineering to 6th and 7th graders as well as LEGO robotics classes and android app coding classes. One thing is consistent through all of them, “There are always fewer girls in the class,” says Gaafary. The courses she’s taught aren’t required, students elect to join them, and she says, “I don’t know if that’s because their interests early on when they’re younger are focused on other things.” But if girls at the age of 10 already express gender stereotypes in STEM skills, it could prevent them from joining these types of classes.

Moving away from gender

“I had a mission early on when deciding I wanted to teach: that I wanted to reach out especially to the girls,” says Gaafary. And to the girls who do elect to take her classes, she makes sure to encourage them from the start.

None of the girls in her classes have openly expressed beliefs that boys are more skilled in these areas, but she has observed glimpses of stereotypic beliefs in some of the boys. “I noticed that the boys tend to be very surprised if a girl finished her build first,” she says.

“Boys are given LEGOs and building blocks and things that are more spatially connected.”

As for the effects gender stereotypes have on young girls, Gaafary says it makes sense to her. “That’s when I was forming my own personality and opinion of myself. Age 10 is really critical.”

Maybe as more opportunities like those offered at Gaafary’s school open up and as girls get to see more women role models, like Gaafary herself, these gender beliefs in young children will start to be a rare observation. Gaafary points out that we may need to pay attention even earlier as young kids are still given toys that represent gender stereotypes. “Boys are given LEGOs and building blocks and things that are more spatially connected,” she says.

There has been a recent effort to de-gender children’s toys. LEGO came out with a girl-centric advertisement, Target stopped gender-labeling toys, and LEGO has added more women in their STEM minifigure line. Maybe the tides are changing.

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