Girls Underestimate Their STEM Aptitude, Boys Overestimate

Stereotypes can be hard to shake.

Girls Underestimate Their STEM Aptitude, Boys Overestimate

I grew up in a house with two engineer parents — a challenge for an eventual English major. Too much dinnertime discussion of programming languages or acronym-heavy projects either gave me vertigo or made me fall asleep in my mashed potatoes, so I tried to make sure our conversations didn't include much work talk. But my mother and father worked at the same company (and still do), so their shared experiences would often come up. Even as I tried to tune out, it was easy to notice that my dad's relationship to his workplace was much different from my mom's. She frequently spoke of being the only woman in large meetings or on business trips, and while she's far from a social-justice warrior, she would occasionally talk about sexism in the industry. A study from Florida State University may explain why my mother is such a rarity as a female engineer, even as efforts to get women more involved in math- and science-related fields have gone on for decades.


The documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap reports that less than 20 percent of computer-science jobs in the United States are held by women. While the film holds up hostile work environments and even sexual harassment as reasons why women are reluctant to enter the field, the study found that 12th-grade girls are also inclined to underestimate their abilities in science and math. Boys, meanwhile, overestimate them.

"Our results indicate the potential for more women to move into [physics, engineering, mathematics, and computer science] if they perceive their mathematics ability as strong, and open to growth," said Lara Perez-Felkner, co-author of the study. 

The true value of stereotypes can often be difficult to ascertain, because so many stereotypes are self-fulfilling. Girls, raised on the idea that they're better suited for the humanities and that boys are more inclined toward hard sciences, often take the path that societal norms suggest to them. With something like math and science skills, it can be hard to separate how much of the gender gap is caused by socialized behaviors, and how much of it (if any) is caused by natural, biological difference. Math takes practice, and those who feel less encouraged to practice probably won't do so, even if their innate propensity for math wizardry is high. At the same time, boys with a knack for writing, music, or the visual arts may be stuck toiling away in STEM classes without realizing where their true potential lies.

It's certainly not a problem for students to attempt to improve on their weaknesses, and sorting those around us into the discrete groups of "science person" and "artsy person" is much too simplistic. Of course, some girls really are better equipped for success in English or art, and they should be able to embrace that without feeling ordinary or old-fashioned.

But we're all better off when we're doing the jobs we're best at, and, even more importantly, the jobs we want to be doing. The study suggests that many girls will struggle to identify their true potential, and that shouldn't be happening. More freedom to choose our own roles in life increases enlightenment and happiness for everyone. Overcoming gender stereotypes is a part of maximizing that freedom.

Visit EurekAlert for more, and check out Harvard professor Daniel Koretz's video on gender and education:

 

3,000-pound Triceratops skull unearthed in South Dakota

"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.

Excavation of a triceratops skull in South Dakota.

Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
Surprising Science
  • The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
  • It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
  • Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Keep reading Show less

We're creating pigs with human immune systems to study illness

Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?

Surprising Science

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.

Keep reading Show less

A new warning sign to predict volcanic eruptions?

Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.

Volcano erupting lava, volcanic sky active rock night Ecuador landscape

Credit: Ammit via Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
  • The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
  • The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Moral and economic lessons from Mario Kart

The design of a classic video game yields insights on how to address global poverty.

Quantcast