Female STEM Careers Still Affected by Stereotypes

Image via US News

Image via US News

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) are traditionally male dominated fields of study. It is also well established that women remain underrepresented in such programs to this day. This gender discrepancy has been a hot topic among researchers and advocates who seek to understand this phenomenon to ultimately close or at least reduce the gap. For the few women who successfully end up in STEM programs, one would assume they overcame the barriers and are less prone to stereotype views. But is this true?

Professor Bernhard Ertl from the Universität der Bundeswehr München, in Germany took a closer look at this topic in their recent study "The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on the Self-Concept of Female Students in STEM Subjects with an Under-Representation of Females" published in Frontiers for Psychology.

The study involved 296 women from different German universities who are all enrolled in a STEM program with less than 30% females. It aimed at investigating the impact of stereotypes and the role of family, school and society on the self-concept of females already studying these scientific subjects. Stereotypes impact a person's self-assessment and lower their sense of competence, ability and self-confidence.

Even though the students participating in the study presumably had good grades in STEM, stereotypes still corrupted their self-esteem. The STEM career path is considered untypical by many of the students' social environments and in some instances, was met with surprise or even skepticism. One of the reasons for this might lie in stereotypes that attribute girls' achievements to diligence instead of talent.

The study points to the fact that family can have a negative impact on female students' self-concept and initiatives that directly seek to support the students may actually backfire and reinforce the stereotypical views instead.

Indirect support has proven to be more effective. This involves giving children more opportunities to have positive experiences in science related subjects from an early age. This includes giving them chances to meet their role models, and always keeping it interesting with engaging lessons, field trips, and videos. Such measures may boost the self-concept of female students in STEM programs, more so than direct encouragement.

To conclude, study co-author Professor Manuela Paechter highlights the key learning from the study for education "We should realize that supporting students may have ambiguous effects. Consider this paradox: If we perceive a student as not sufficiently gifted by the standards of our implicit stereotypes, we may communicate this opinion subconsciously whilst at the same time giving them support. Even if well intentioned, such behavior will foil the hoped-for effects. Instead, teaching subjects like physics while linking them to how they explain daily life phenomena could attract more girls (and also more boys). "

(Story via Science Daily)