Driving Question: To what extent do gender stereotypes play a role in the low percentage of women in STEM fields?
“Math class is tough! Party Dresses are fun. Do you have a crush on anyone? Math class is tough!”
Believe it or not, Mattel’s 1992 Teen Talk Barbie spoke (youtube) the above phrases to her little girl owners. Although attacked for the offensive, negatively stereotyped phrase, Mattel did not order a recall on the doll. An exchange was offered for anyone who wanted a doll that did not say “math class is tough,” but the implications of giving impressionable little girls a doll that found math difficult was used as an example of how schools shortchange girls when it comes to inciting interest in math and science.
Janessa Shapiro and Amy Williams speculate in their article, “The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls’ and Women’s Performance and Interest in STEM Fields,” that negative attitudes towards math and science can develop in young girls as early as elementary school. Shapiro and William’s examine the concept of “stereotype threat” in relation to women’s performance in math fields. They conclude that making gender salient (predominant) before administering a test had dramatic effects on the scores of women compared to men.
When 15-year-old girls were told prior to taking a math test that girls’ performance on the test is historically lower than boys’ performance on the test, their scores were significantly lower than the scores of girls who were not told about the difference in boys’ and girls’ scores. As previously mentioned, this gender stereotype threat can influence young girls in elementary school. When girls were administered a 3rd grade math test, half were first told to color a picture of a girl holding a doll and a boy bouncing a ball, and the other half were told to color a landscape picture. Girls and boys performed similarly when they were told to color the landscape first, but after coloring the picture of the girl and boy (which subconsciously made gender salient) the girls performed much worse than the boys. Clearly, gender stereotypes affect girls’ attitudes about math and other STEM fields. Williams notes that, “stereotypes can undermine women’s and girls’ performance in STEM fields even when women and girls have positive math attitudes.” Even girls who excel in math can be negatively affected by the stereotype threat.
I find these studies very intriguing. As I mentioned last week, I went to an all girls’ school. For the most part I didn’t even think about gender, except when May rolled around and it became AP exam week. There was an all boys school across the street from my school, and we were always told how they boys scored better than we did on every math and science AP exam to “motivate us” to work harder. As you can imagine, that motivation did not exactly work. It was rare for boys at the all boys school not to pass an exam, and it was rare for girls to pass an exam. Another study cited in Shapiro’s and Williams’ report was that when girls were asked to report their gender before taking the AP Calculus AB exam, they scored 33% lower than when they were not. Making gender prevalent and treating girls and boys differently leads girls to feel inferior and affects their attitudes, and therefore their performance, in math-related subjects. Another instance I remember feeling inferior due to my gender was when I was assigned to read a math book over the summer, “Kiss My Math: Showing Algebra Whose Boss.” Included were girly quizzes and examples of how to solve equations using variables of cupcakes and cookies….I was slightly offended to say the least. Why did I have to read a book over the summer that treated me like the only way I could understand math was with “girly” simplifications? According to Toni Schmader, Michael Johns, and Marchelle Barquissau, that is another form of stereotype threat, and a dangerous one, as girls can endorse these negative stereotypes and believe themselves inferior.
Schmader, Johns, and and Barquissau explain in their article, “The Cost of Accepting Gender Differences” that it is more women’s acceptance of stereotypes than other people’s stereotypes that cause the number of women in math and engineering fields a fraction of that for men. They note that adopting the stereotypes as their own beliefs, women lose confidence in their abilities and are more likely to switch out of a STEM field, or avoid them altogether. The study concludes with definitively addressing stereotypes as one major effects on the gender-imbalance in STEM fields:
“Although many college women might openly reject gender stereotypes, the results of the present research reveal that there is still a percentage of women who accept the idea that men are mathematically superior to women. . .In other words, stereotype endorsement might be an important variable for understanding women’s lower levels of involvement in math-related fields as well as their lower test scores.”
So whether from a Barbie doll or a report on girls’ versus boys’ performance on math tests, gender stereotypes affect young girls and women choosing a career to pursue. Perhaps leaving gender out of the discussion will diminish its role in discouraging women from entering STEM fields.