Study finds girls turn away from STEM subjects early

Study finds girls turn away from STEM subjects early

(District of Columbia) Efforts to funnel girls into careers in math and science may be thwarted before they begin, according to new findings that children as young as 6 begin self-selecting out of those fields.

The report, published in the latest issue of Science, found that beginning around first grade, girls associate boys as being smarter, and start to shy away from activities intended for more intelligent people. Boys were also shown to think of themselves as inherently smarter.

Authors of the study–Lin Bian, psychologist at the University of Illinois, and Andrei Cimpian, professor of psychology at New York University–say their findings suggest schools must work to break down stereotypes far earlier than many parents might expect. The researchers said families should foster girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math long before they reach high school.

“If children absorb and act on these ideas, then many capable girls are likely to have already veered away from certain fields by the time they reach college,” authors of the report wrote. “Thus, it is important to investigate the acquisition of the ‘brilliance = males’ stereotype in early childhood, as children enter school and begin to make choices that shape their future career paths.”

Between local, state and federal initiatives, billions of dollars have been spent across the country to increase overall participation in STEM careers, but also specifically among groups largely underrepresented in those fields–including women.

Past research has shown similar disparities between older boys’ and girls’ performance in math and science, compared to their self-reported levels of self-confidence and anxiety in those subjects. Even teachers have been found to rate girls’ math skills lower than those of boys as early as first grade, despite similar behavior and academic performance.

That same attitude is present among first grade children themselves, according to the latest study.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments that included 400 children. In the first, 240 children between the ages of 5 and 7 were read a story about a specific person who is “really, really smart,” and who “figures out how to do things quickly and comes up with answers much faster and better than anyone else.”

The students were then shown pictures of four adults—two men and two women—and asked to guess which was the smart person described in the story. Researchers found that, at 5 years old, boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender to a similar extent; while girls aged 6 and 7 were much less likely than boys to draw the same conclusions. Instead, girls at those ages considered the men pictured as likely being smarter more often.

In a second experiment, researchers asked 160 kids between 6 and 7 which one of two imaginary games they would prefer to play–one for "children who are really, really smart," and the other for kids who “try really, really hard." Similar to the first experiment, the girls who participated in the study were less interested than boys in the game for smart children.

“The present results suggest a sobering conclusion: Many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age,” researchers concluded. “This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate.”