New research from the University of Washington and the University of Houston has found that gender stereotypes around computer science and engineering for children can start in first grade and extend through high school. .
While disappointing, it’s not entirely surprising. The gender diversity of high school students taking AP computer courses, for example, has increased in recent years, but female students still make up less than 30% of AP exam applicants.
“There has been a lot of research on the ‘ability stereotype’ – that boys are better than girls at math and science,” said Allison Master, assistant professor of psychology, health and learning sciences. at the University of Houston and lead author of the study.
“But this is the first study to say that we also have these societal stereotypes that boys are more interested in computers, robots and engineering than girls,” said Master. “What effect does this kind of perception have on young girls? “
In studies of more than 2,200 children, 51% of children and adolescents said that girls were less interested in computers than boys, and 63% of them said that girls were interested. less to engineering.
When asked if girls are more interested in computer science than boys, only 14% said they were, and only 9% said girls are more interested in engineering.
The results suggest that efforts to attract more girls into computer science and engineering should not just focus on showing girls that they can achieve intellectual success in these fields. Efforts have to convince them that they want to try it first, that these are topics that girls like them like.
The peer-reviewed research was published online last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The other authors are UW psychology professors Andrew Meltzoff and Sapna Cheryan; Meltzoff is also Co-Director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at UW.
In the study, computer science was described as computer coding, and engineering was characterized as the creation and design of structures such as roads and bridges, or the creation of new products using scientific methods.
The professors also conducted additional, smaller studies. In this research with 172 children, children were given a choice of two activities – after being told about gender preferences for the activities. When told that boys liked computers more than girls, only 35% of girls chose this activity. When told that boys and girls were equally interested, 65% of girls chose the computer activity.
The results, said Master, speak of a person’s sense of belonging.
Telling girls that others of their gender weren’t interested in computers “made the girls feel like they didn’t belong when they did this activity,” she said. “Even at 8 and 9, girls are sensitive to this kind of information.”
But what if girls were really less interested in computer science and engineering?
“Stereotypes create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Master. The fact that girls were more interested in the computer task when there was no bias supports the assertion. “We can never change the situation until we can deal with some of the effects of these stereotypes,” said Master.
Master suggested that parents and teachers think about the messages they send to children. This includes explicit statements, as well as the activities in which they encourage girls to engage, such as classes, summer camps and after-school clubs.
Research found that stereotypes were true across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, and the Bezos Family Foundation.
A 2017 study by the same group of researchers found that in Grade 1, children already adopt ability stereotypes, believing boys to be better than girls at robotics and programming. At the same time, children said that girls and boys were equally good or their own gender was better in math and other sciences.
Masters has a new grant from the NSF to examine high school students who enroll in introductory computer classes and test an intervention in schools to try to recruit more girls into classes.