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Gender bias for girls and women in STEM

By Allison Cabana

*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

There’s plenty of stereotypes about what women and girls can’t do. Messages about girls not being smart enough for science or not being tough enough for sports are everywhere, from TV shows, books and magazines, news and social media in both subtle and very obvious ways. Back in 1992, there was even a Barbie doll (don’t get me started on that gender-targeted toy) that said: “math class is tough”– a message to girls and women about their (lack of) mathematics abilities. I’ve hoped over the course of my lifetime that I would see these sexist messages change, but unfortunately they haven’t changed enough. 

According to a research study that came out in 2016, there is still a particularly harmful stereotype that women and girls cannot be scientists.¹ I know that isn’t true: I happen to know many women and girl scientists. So my first question when I hear things like that is always, “Well, how do we change that perception then?” I think there’s probably multiple ways to do that, but I think that one of them has to do with girls and women becoming scientists anyways. 

But this can be tough because how people think about us can have an effect on how we think about ourselves, even if we don’t realize it. Dr. Rachael Robnett (a woman scientist!) published a study this year about how gender-bias and stereotypes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) contributes to how women and girls in those fields feel about themselves.² Gender-bias and negative stereotypes about women are things like, “women aren’t good at math,” “she couldn’t possibly be a physics professor, women aren’t good at physics” and so on. In this study, Dr. Robnett talked to girls and women in high school, college, and doctoral programs who were either in STEM fields already or wanted to go into them. She asked them about their experiences with negative interactions based on their gender, and then asked them about their own thoughts on being in a STEM field. She also asked people who reported that they had negative interactions whether they also had support systems in their fields. 

And surprise, surprise, she found that over half of the women and girls in STEM fields had experienced sexism and people believing they couldn’t be good scientists because of their gender. Many of them also reported feeling bad about themselves as scientists (maybe because they were treated like they couldn’t do the job). However, the flicker of hope here is that women and girls who had people supporting them as women and girls in STEM felt more positively about themselves as scientists. Having a group of people who are supportive can help you think more positively about yourself, although this isn’t the only thing that makes it possible. 

I think about how to make sense of this from my own life. I can remember a friend telling me a story about trying to study for a computer class, and the teacher told them “It’s ok if you don’t do well on it. I don’t expect girls to. Computers are hard for y’all.” She told me that made her feel like she didn’t need to do well on the test because she wasn’t supposed to do well. Luckily, she found support in her sister who told her what her teacher was teaching their class about: the Black women scientists in the 1940s working for NASA. That changed her thinking and she became determined to prove her teacher wrong about girls’ abilities. 

So what do these findings mean for us? Well, I think they tell us that, (1) we need to combat sexism and misogyny in STEM fields, and (2) we need to build up support networks for folks all along the way (in school, families, the media, etc). However, I also think it’s just as important to think about why any of us do “science” and who we do it for. It is important to create supportive networks to fight misogyny so that girls and women can enter the STEM fields, and be supported once they’re there. And it is equally important to make sure the “science” that we’re doing is in the interest of the world. Scientists can and should be using science in political ways. For instance, a few years back a group of young scientists of multiple genders created an algorithm in less than 2 days that was able to filter “real” from “fake” news on Facebook feeds. Other scientists are environmental and social justice activists fighting for the protection of the Earth, including fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline, #noDAPL. Pursuing science shouldn’t be limited by not being a boy or a man, and when we do work toward scientific goals, we should always think about how we can use science to create the world we want to see. 

So even though Barbie may stereotype girls and women as unable to do science well, other people are reimagining ways that folks of all genders can be great scientists for the world. But it is a tough challenge and we need to support each other. I know my support networks have been so important in helping me become the social scientist I am today (thanks y’all!). And to all of you budding scientists out there who want to change the world in coding camp, computer class, biology lab, or wherever you are, know that, we’re here rooting you on.

¹Carli, L., Alawa, L., Lee, Y., Zhao, B., & Kim, E. (2016). Stereotypes about gender and science: Women ≠ scientists. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40 (2), 244-260. 

²Robnett, R. (2016). Gender bias in STEM fields: Variation in prevalence and links to STEM self-concept. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(1), 65-79.

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