STEM Girls Know

Young girls know that stars, dinosaurs, bugs and volcanoes are magic. The problem is that day-to-day life in a patriarchal culture makes it hard for women to study them. – Shannon Palus on Quartz.

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated through the stories we tell children as soon as they’re born. For example, little kids have few preconceived ideas about what a scientist looks like until they start going to pre-school. In Prep and Grade 1 they still draw scientists in gender-neutral ways, but by Grade 2 onwards, they start drawing White men in lab coats. By Grade 5 the stereotype that only White men are scientists has taken hold. The stereotype is both gendered and racial, as research shows that even minorities tend to draw White men, thus affecting diversity in science on multiple levels.This stereotype is used in other ways by teachers, parents, the media and other figures of authority to force girls to consider that maybe they’re not fit to do science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM0. It turns into a phenomenon known as stereotype threat which affects women’s memory recall, decision-making and resilience.

The stereotype is repeated in high school, in the way women scientists and people of colour are missing from the science curriculum, to university, where women role models are largely absent from the syllabus. At every step of girls’ progression from education through to their careers, gender stereotypes are used to discourage women both in tacit and overt ways. This is known as the leaky pipeline, with studies showing how girls and women leave STEM at various stages due to the cultural pressures and institutional obstacles they face.

Read more from me, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and Prof Rajini Rao on how to transcend gender stereotypes and structural barriers in science.

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