My 10-year-old niece just got accepted to a competitive magnet middle school with a science and pre-engineering focus. She's excited about the projects, field trips, and lab time, and her interest in science has always been supported by her parents and teachers. It's tempting to take that kind of encouragement for granted, but a new study shows that when it comes to kids and science education, parents and teachers may be unconsciously clinging to stereotypes -- contributing to way women continue to lag behind men in science and technological fields.
In an AAUW report called "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," researchers found that environmental and social barriers -- including stereotypes, gender bias, and the attitudes and environment women face in college science and engineering departments -- limit women's advancement in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.
According to a AAUW panel discussion about the report (you can listen in here), one factor is that girls, especially in middle and high school, tend to try to hew to stereotypes of femininity -- ones that still consider science and math to be male domains. Those stereotypes "can lower girls' aspirations for science and engineering careers over time," the report, which was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, said.
The stereotypes stay in place as the children grow, and in adulthood women are hit with a double whammy: Not only are math, science, engineering, and technology fields associated with men, women who succeed in so-called masculine fields are seen in a negative light. It's a familiar Catch 22 for many working women: If you're nice, you're incompetent, but if you're clearly successful in your work, you're "less likeable."
We now know that girls are as capable in math as boys are -- according to data from the US Department of Education, girls are taking high school math courses at the same rate as boys (and earning slightly higher grades). Simply reminding students that both boys and girls can do well seems to have an impact in their test scores, the AAUW study shows, "illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls' achievement in math."
Parents, what do you think? Are we unconsciously pushing our girls to avoid "male" subjects like math and science? If so, how to explain the fact that women are becoming more prominent in other traditionally male fields, like medicine and law?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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