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:

 

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

These are the world’s greatest threats in 2021

We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.

Luis Ascui/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.

Keep reading Show less

Columbia study finds new way to extract energy from black holes

A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surprising Science
  • In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
  • A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
  • The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast