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How do gender stereotypes affect girls' interest in pursuing STEM careers?

By Kim Belmonte

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Okay, let’s do a little exercise.

Close your eyes and picture a “computer scientist.” Who is it that you picture? If the very first image that comes to mind is of, well, a man, alone in an office surrounded by computer bits, you wouldn’t be alone.

Research shows that computer science and information technology (IT) are often stereotyped as male, solitary and requiring brilliance (by the way, a recent research study found that girls are less likely to believe that people like them can be brilliant). And what’s the big deal about stereotypes? Well, our last research blog discussed how sexist stereotypes within STEM make girls and women feel like they can’t be scientists. Even though history shows us that women can—and do – offer important insights in STEM (that is, science, technology, engineering and math) there are still lower numbers of women entering STEM careers than men. In high school and college, girls and women are also taking fewer classes in STEM. Computer science is one of the worst cases of unequal numbers – less than 20% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science are given out to women and only 25% of the IT work force is made up of women.[1] 25%?! Where my girl computer scientists at?

Researchers Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff had the same question! They wondered how the stereotype that computer science is for boys could affect a girl’s interest in taking a computer science class.  

So they did a neat experiment by making the stereotypes of computer science really obvious to see how this affected girl’s interest in taking a computer science class. First, they did a little pre-research to find out what kind of objects were seen as “stereotypically” computer science-y. They then decorated a classroom with those items (things like Star Wars/Star Trek paraphernalia, computer books, science fiction books, computer parts) and took a picture. Then they took a picture of a classroom decorated with non-stereotypical items (neutral things like nature pictures, water bottles, pens, a coffee machine, plants etc.).

High school students from both public and private schools participated. First, without seeing the photographs, students read a description of a computer science class called “Introduction to Computer Science” and indicated how interested they would be enrolling and how much they felt they would belong in the class (for example, how similar they thought they would be to the other students and how well they thought would fit in with the other students). They also reported their concerns about negative stereotypes (for example, if they felt nervous that others would draw negative conclusions about their gender). Then they looked at the photos of the stereotyped and non-stereotyped classrooms and were asked how they would feel about taking a computer science class in each of those classrooms. Lastly, they were asked if they thought that they fit the stereotype of a computer scientist—now this might seem a little strange since we’re used to thinking of stereotypes as negative but what the researchers were really asking is, “do you fit into your mental image of a computer scientist?”

So what did they find? Well first, girls were more nervous about being negatively stereotyped than boys in every type of classroom (although this difference was smaller in the non-stereotyped classroom). And when it came to feeling interested in the class, girls were less interested in taking the computer science class compared to boys when they didn’t see a picture of the class, or when they saw the stereotyped picture. So even when they aren’t shown a stereotypical classroom, girls may have the stereotypical idea that computer science is for boys. But what about when girls rated that non-stereotypical classroom? There was no difference in interest between boys or girls. Almost 3 times as many girls were interested in taking the course in the non-stereotyped classroom as the stereotyped one. Basically it seems that creating environments that are not-so-stereotypical can encourage girls to join computer science or STEM classes!

But what is it about the classroom environment that impacts interest?

Even though girls were more nervous about being negatively stereotyped in the computer science class than boys, the real key to girls’ interest in the class was their sense of belonging. The researchers found that girls felt a greater sense of belonging in the non-stereotyped classroom compared to the stereotyped classroom or the pre-photo condition. This feeling of belonging influenced their interest in the course even over their fear of being negatively stereotyped! This sense of belonging was also connected to how much girls felt they “fit” their mental image of a computer scientist.

What do these findings tell us? Far too few girls and women are entering STEM classes and careers but these results show us that if we can help girls feel a sense of belonging, then this is key to helping them develop an interest in STEM and overcome their fears of being negatively judged in these stereotypically male-dominated spaces. Girls have a tough skin for how others think of them, but most importantly, they need to be able to picture themselves in that STEM classroom (or career!)

If you don’t think there are people like you in a classroom (or career path) you’ll be less likely to feel a sense of belonging, and in turn, less likely to feel interested. These researchers found that stereotypes in a classroom itself can trigger or turn off feelings of belonging. When it comes to careers in STEM, we need to work on changing the stereotype that STEM is not for girls and create learning environments that reflect this.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever learning about American female scientists, inventors, mathematicians or engineers during women’s history month when I was growing up. [2]  One way to change the stereotypical image of STEM-as-male-dominated is to lift up the incredible contributions of female scientists, inventors, engineers and computer programmers. And, since it is Women’s History Month, I think I’ll end with a shout out to some famous women in STEM!

Maybe you’ve just seen the film (or read the book) Hidden Figures which tells the true story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson –three black women who figured out the math to launch the first American astronaut into orbit? This film also shows an often-forgotten slice of STEM history that early computer programmers were mostly women! In fact, one of the first computer code programs was invented by a woman – Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. And even more recently? In 2014, Megan Smith was named the first female chief technology officer of the US, advising the Obama administration’s IT policies.  

Learning about the achievements of girls and women in science doesn’t just change our cultural images of what a “scientist” looks like. It also helps us see that when we don’t have women working on science and technology issues, everyone loses out.

In love and research,


P.S. For more stories of women in STEM, check out the National Women’s History Museum’s online content to learn about awesome women making discoveries and contributions throughout American History (like Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, “the first lady of physics” who did groundbreaking work on nuclear fission or Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in the United States and the first American scientist to discover a comet)

[2] Although we were taught about the achievements of suffragettes who worked to gain women the right to vote and abolitionists who advocated to end slavery!

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