In several studies children were asked to draw a scientist. In almost all cases they drawn men, with glasses and in a lab coat.
A research from the National Girls Collaborative Project shows that until K-12 (before the ending of high school) there is no difference in the achievements in math and science between boys and girls.
Things change at the university level. Although US women hold about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, only a few of them has a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
According to George Lucas Educational Foundation there are mainly three barriers keeping girls and women away from STEM careers.
- Stereotype about who a scientist is. At some point of their school and/or academic career girls become aware through (not so) subtle messages about male superiority in math. Personally (I have a M.Sc. in Industrial Biotechnology, lot of math in there and I am finishing a Ph.D. in Food Chemistry) several times I have been told: “You study Biotech/Food Chem. Wow, that is difficult”. My male colleagues never receive these types of comments. First of all: Yes, it is difficult. Second, that’s why I like it. Third, I can do it! As a science teacher, I always encourage my female (but also male) students to pursue a career in STEM. Lots of students say to me that they like biology, but dislike chemistry because “It is difficult, like math”. I try (and hopefully succeed to show them the beauty and the magic behind chemistry.
- Socioeconomic background is a factor. Girls from high-income communities, pursue STEM careers more often than girls (and boys) from low-income families. These girls have often strong female role models. Often their mothers are doctors or engineers and it is easier for them to see themselves in STEM jobs. Again, the role of high school and teachers is of primary importance. Kids with the worst socioeconomic background are those who need the stronger encouragement.
- It’s not only important what we teach, but also how we teach it. It is common to use multiple-choice test for science. Reardon and colleagues analyzed roughly 8 million 4th- and 8th-grade test scores and discovered that test format explains about 25% of the variation in scores between males and females. With my students, I never use multiple-choice tests, but always open-ended questions. I think that this is the best way for all the students to really demonstrate what they know and what they understood (but also, it is interesting to notice also what they misunderstood or don’t have a clear vision about).
We need to work every day to be role models for our daughters, our female students and for all the girls out there seeking for inspiration! Go girls!!!
Reardon et al., “The Relationship Between Test Item Format and Gender Achievement Gaps on Math and ELA Tests in 4th and 8th Grade”, Educational Researcher, (2018), 47, https://cepa.stanford.edu/content/relationship-between-test-item-format-and-gender-achievement-gaps-math-and-ela-tests-4th-and-8th-grade