Houston: According to a new study, the idea that boys are more interested in computer science and engineering than girls begins as early as age six.
The study was published in the journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.' According to research co-author Allison Master, assistant professor at the University Of Houston College Of Education, this may be one of the reasons why girls and women are underrepresented in certain STEM professional sectors.
"Gender-interest stereotypes that say 'STEM is for boys' begin in grade school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made their decision not to pursue degrees in computer science and engineering because they feel they don't belong," said Master.
Researchers from the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington surveyed over 2,500 students in grades from one to twelve from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. These research' findings were paired with laboratory trials to give vital insights into how stereotypes influenced children's motivation.
More children believed girls had less interest than boys in key STEM fields. Specifically, 63 percent of the students believed girls were less interested in engineering than boys were, while 9 percent believed girls were more interested in the subject. Regarding computer science, 51 percent thought girls had less interest while 14 percent thought girls had more interest than boys.
These interest patterns played out in the job market. According to United States Census Bureau statistics, while women made up nearly half of the workforce, they accounted for only 25 per cent of computer scientists and 15 per cent of engineers.
Researchers said educators, parents, and policymakers can help close these gender gaps by introducing girls to high-quality computer science and engineering activities in elementary school before stereotype endorsements take root. They also suggested educators who wish to promote girls' interest and engagement in STEM should consider using inclusive programs designed to encourage girls' sense of belonging in STEM.
The laboratory experiments gave children a choice between computer science activities. Fewer girls (only 35 per cent) chose a computer science activity they believed boys were more interested in, compared to the 65 per cent of girls who chose an activity for which they believed boys and girls were equally interested.
"It's time for all stakeholders to be united in sending the message that girls can enjoy STEM just as much as boys do, which will help draw them into STEM activities," added Master, who directs UH's Identity and Academic Motivation (I AM) Lab.
Co-authors on the study are Andrew N. Meltzoff of the University of Washington, Seattle's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences; and Sapna Cheryan, University of Washington, Seattle's Department of Psychology.