Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM

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.

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Social Justice in Ferguson

Over 1,400 sociologists have signed an open letter protesting police brutality in Ferguson, USA. The letter includes practical measures to address the killing of Michael Brown and mistreatment of protesters in Ferguson. Coordinated by Sociologists for Justice, the letter shows that systemic racism needs to be addressed as well as wider socio-economic and political issues to ensure effective change is enacted.

The book The New Jim Crow outlines how the criminal justice system in America is affected by systemic racism. Additionally, decades of sociological research shows that police officers’ decision-making is affected by racial stereotypes and that better training can address this bias (more links below). Effective change in community policing begins by understanding the effects of the victimisation of people of colour and by addressing the institutional practices that lead to excessive policing of people of colour. Below are the suggestions outlined in the open letter, but I urge you to read the letter in full as it summarises sociological research on race bias in policing. You can also add your name to the open letter, as I have done.

Social Justice for Michael Brown and Ferguson
We are troubled by the killing of Michael Brown. We are troubled by the excessive show of force and militarised response to protesters who rightfully seek justice and demand a change in the treatment of people of colour by law enforcement. – Sociologists for Justice.

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Video: Stereotype Threat

Very exciting to be chatting with Professor Chad Forbes about how to improve gender and race diversity in STEM! He’ll tell us about his social neuroscience research on how stereotype threat affects women and minorities in science.

Join us for a STEM Women HOA as we speak to Professor Chad Forbes about stereotype threat and its impact on women and minorities in STEM. Chad is a Social Neuroscientist who uses electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other tools to research the impact of negative stereotypes on individuals.

Continue reading Video: Stereotype Threat