Stereotypes about what boys and girls supposedly like aren’t hard to find.
Toy advertisements send signals that science and electronic toys are intended for boys rather than girls. Computer scientists and engineers on television shows and movies are often white men, like the guys on “The Big Bang Theory.”
But as researchers who specialize in motivation, identity and cognitive development, we think society has largely overlooked another harmful stereotype. And that is the notion that girls are less interested than boys are in STEM.
In our peer-reviewed research – published in November 2021 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – we found that these stereotypes about girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math – or lack thereof – are fairly widespread among young people today. We also found that these stereotypes actually have an effect on girls’ motivation and sense of belonging in computer science and engineering.
Fields like math are close to having gender parity – that is to say, roughly equal numbers of men and women – and women are actually overrepresented in fields like biology among college graduates in the U.S.
Yet, the nation is still failing to diversify computer science and engineering. Only about 1 in 5 degrees in computer science and engineering go to women.
Our research shows that societal stereotypes linking these fields with boys and men act as a barrier that keeps girls and young women away. There have been many conversations about the harm caused by stereotypes about natural talent, which assert that men are better than women at STEM. But what might be even more detrimental for girls’ motivation are stereotypes that men are more interested than women in these activities and careers. These stereotypes may give girls the sense that they don’t belong.
Probing children’s perceptions
For our study, our first step was to document whether children and adolescents believe these societal stereotypes. We surveyed 2,277 youths in grades 1-12 in 2017 and 2019 about how interested they think girls and boys are in computer science and engineering. The majority of youths reported that boys were more likely than girls to be interested in these fields. Most youths – 63% – believed that girls are less interested than boys in engineering. Only 9% believed that girls are more interested than boys in engineering. These “interest stereotypes,” if you will, were endorsed by youths from diverse backgrounds, including Black, white, Asian and Hispanic youths.
They were endorsed by kids as early as age 6, in first grade. These beliefs about gendered interests were also more common than stereotypes about ability, that boys are more talented than girls at these fields.
We also discovered that these interest stereotypes were linked to worse outcomes for girls. The more that a typical girl in our study believed in these stereotypes favoring boys, the less motivated she was in computer science and engineering. This wasn’t the case for the typical boy. The more he believed in these stereotypes, the more motivated he was.
Effects on motivation
We also did two laboratory experiments using a gold-standard random-assignment design to see whether interest stereotypes have causal effects on motivation. We told children about two activities they could try. The only difference between the activities was that one activity – one that was randomly chosen – was linked to a stereotype that girls were less interested than boys in that activity.
The other activity was not linked to such a stereotype. If children preferred one activity over the other, we could infer that the stereotype caused a difference in their preferences. We found that interest stereotypes can actually cause girls’ lower motivation for computer science activities.
Only 35% of girls chose the stereotyped activity over the nonstereotyped activity. These stereotypes – which favored boys in this case – weren’t a problem for boys, who showed no preference. There was no gender gap when there was no stereotype – a gender gap only appeared when the activity was stereotyped.
Why are interest stereotypes so powerful? Interest stereotypes may make girls assume: If boys like these fields more than girls, then I won’t like these fields either. They also send a clear signal about who belongs there. A sense of belonging matters a lot for motivation, including young women in STEM fields like computer science and engineering. The lower the girls’ sense of belonging, the lower their interest.
Whether or not these cultural stereotypes are currently true, we believe they can create a vicious cycle. Girls might miss out on opportunities because of an assumption that they are not interested or should not be interested in certain STEM fields. Unless adults deliberately send girls a different message about who belongs in computer science and engineering, we as a society discourage girls from trying these activities and discovering that they like them.
But the good news is that the lack of belonging that many girls feel in certain STEM feels is not permanent. On the contrary, we think it can be changed.
There are simple ways to send kids a different message about who likes to do computer science and engineering. Parents and other adults can check their assumptions about what toys to buy girls for their birthdays or holidays, or what summer camps they should attend. Girls can be shown examples of women like Aicha Evans and Debbie Sterling – women who are changing the world through technology and enjoying themselves while doing so.
It’s not enough for girls to realize that they can do computer science and engineering. In order to change the status quo, we think it’s necessary to spread the word that many girls actually want to do these things as well.
Allison Master, Assistant Professor of Education, University of Houston; Andrew N. Meltzoff, Professor of Psychology, University of Washington, and Sapna Cheryan, Professor of Psychology, University of Washington