Girls Influenced by Gender Stereotypes in Math, Sciences
> 8/28/2007 2:12:06 PM

It sounds like the stuff of post-war urban legend, but the original talking Barbie doll introduced herself to kids and parents nationwide with the immortal line "math class is tough." And the year of her birth was not 1952. It was 1992. Long held "common sense" beliefs assert that young girls are simply not interested in math and science - they're far more comfortable, presumably, in home ec. But new research indicates that young girls are just as captivated by science and technology as their male classmates are. Surveys reveal a surprising number of fourth-graders of both genders responding positively to the idea of scientific research: 68% percent of boys and 66% of girls said that they found science "interesting."

Unfortunately, the spectre of societal prejudice enters the equation early and peaks during the pre-pubescent years, its influence great enough to make eighth-grade boys twice as likely as their female peers to voice an interest in pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professions. In a related survey, almost all second graders, when asked to draw a scientist, drew an identifiably male figure, so these preconceptions take hold at a very young age. How many female scientists make their way into popular cartoons? On the plus side, reports indicate an expanding female presence in the average laboratory, but most parties involved decry the speed at which the gender gap is shrinking: Although women now earn about half the graduate degrees in math and chemistry, for example, they hold only about 10 percent of the faculty jobs in those fields.

Interesting that, given the fact that young girls are more likely to develop favorable views of the college experience than their male peers, scoring higher and graduating with greater frequency, many seem unreceptive to the idea of working in the sciences. Women are demonstrably more successful in many academic settings, clearly possessing the intelligence and disciplined erudition required for work in the science and tech fields. While it's true that boys (as a whole, of course) usually score higher than girls on standardized tests in math and science, with girls getting better marks in language and composition, the marks earned by girls in related classes are just as good if not better.So why does interest seem to wane so dramatically? Surely young women do not all stumble upon a universal truth regarding gender and academic disposition between the ages of 8 and 14. The problem reaches far deeper, touching on pre-established gender roles written so heavily into the fabric of our societal framework that they are all but inescapable.

Some of the problems are legitimately biological: the demanding schedules and near-obsessive devotion so common in the science and tech worlds are not ideal for young mothers. While family and career are not mutually exclusive in any profession, women in their late-20's and 30's must often choose between the two in fields where they very clearly conflict. But this issue hardly accounts for larger gender disparities. Much of the problem stems from inherent biases that many hold even though they're not entirely aware. No teacher stands in front of a third-grade class advising girls to avoid engineering classes or forget about expanding their math skills beyond middle school (we hope). But biology teachers, for example, are overwhelmingly male, and they tend to favor their male students, affording them greater attention and praise and encouraging them to lead in class experiments. The stereotypical research personality is also very male-centric: obsessive, competitive, detail-oriented, blessed with an awkwardness bordering on the anti-social. Is this a universal template? Of course not. But girls receive the message loud and clear: it is not in their best interests to pursue careers in the sciences. They should stick to more traditionally female pursuits like design, literature and homemaking. Much like the stereotype banishing women from the business world, this one is slowly eroding. But it can't happen soon enough. We need all the talent we can get.

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