Buddhini Samarasinghe and Rajini Rao and I have addressed the consequences of gender stereotypes for science careers, in a post just been published in Nature News & Comment. I want to talk about why this issue requires interdisciplinary collaboration. The idea that men and women are innately different in terms of abilities and knowledge due to our biology permeates every aspect of society. The social sciences are fundamentally concerned with undoing this biological argument. Empirical evidence shows that girls and boys actually perform similarly on tests until they come to believe a biological narrative due to socialisation. The idea that girls are somehow fundamentally inferior in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) does not reflect nature; it is an issue of culture. So how and why does this biology narrative take hold?
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 STEM. 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.
Let’s now consider the importance of tackling diversity in stem through interdisciplinary collaboration.