Are we really smashing STEM gender stereotypes for young girls?

The ‘you can do anything you want’ message is not hitting home as research shows girls still believe boys are more intelligent than them in STEM subjects, says Andrea Mara.

Are we really smashing STEM gender stereotypes for young girls?

Girls as young as six believe that boys are more likely to be “really, really smart” — that’s according to findings from a recent NYU study. The research was carried out in the US — would we have the same results here? Do our six-year-olds already think boys are smarter, destined for jobs that require brilliance?

I did some (very unscientific) research with my own kids, asking if there’s anything boys can do better than girls. All three said, “No way, girls can do anything.” I’ve been telling them they can do anything since they were born, so the answer didn’t surprise me.

Then because we tend to associate subjects like maths and science with being smart, I asked, “Do you think you’re good at maths?” (They are, and I’ve told them this many times.) My nine-year-old daughter said, “Probably…” and trailed off.

"My seven-year-old daughter said “I don’t know if I’m good — I know I like maths,” and my five-year-old son piped up before I even got to him with “Yes, I’m great at maths!”

Again, this isn’t very scientific, and I suspect my son’s confidence is to do with age and personality rather than gender, but still, it’s interesting that neither of my daughters is able to state she’s good. Non-scientific approach aside, they do seem to be on the right track in terms of how they see the world and their potential.

But despite the encouragement they get at home, the messages are everywhere — photos in newspapers of men in suits, billboards with men in hard hats, and presidents and heads of state, most of whom are male.

I did a straw poll among friends and everyone said the same thing — we’re giving the right messages to our children, we’re telling them they can do anything they want to do, and gender doesn’t come into it. But somehow despite our efforts, research says girls still think they’re not cut out for jobs requiring brilliance, and there are far fewer women in STEM than men. Why?

Mary Carty, co-founder Outbox Incubator.
Mary Carty, co-founder Outbox Incubator.

I asked Mary Carty, co-founder of Outbox Incubator, an organisation that supports young women going into STEM.

“It’s one thing telling your children they can do anything. It’s another if that behaviour is evident in places that you — the parent — are not. Kids are smart and see what goes on around them.” So if they’re picking up gender stereotypes from the world around them, what can parents do to counter this?

“Be careful about the kinds of messages we give them in text books at school — has the content changed much since we were in school? It’s about constant positive reinforcement — introduce your children to people doing amazing things.

"It’s about pointing things out, ask them did you know that the first British person in space was a woman? It’s about pointing to that text in the book and saying ‘That’s a bit old-fashioned isn’t it’?”

It would be wonderful to think this generation will be the one that’s different, and I was curious to know if the US study results are evident in the classroom today, so I asked primary school teacher Margaret Shine what she thinks.

“I’ve never seen it present itself in the classroom, in fact, I find the children I teach don’t buy into the stereotype at all. We engage in banded learning in maths in our school, so the three-second classes are split into four maths groups, and the groups are pretty evenly divided in terms of gender.

"The children never see the top group as ‘really, really smart’ and they definitely don’t think that boys are smarter.”

There are differences in other areas, says Margaret, who teaches in Co Clare. “If we were talking about sport, the girls would probably say the boys are better because they’re stronger. Exceptional talent though; at this age, the children don’t buy into it. They see the same value in being a good dancer as being in the top maths group.”

So does something change at second level?

Mags Amond, board member CoderDojo Ireland, taught science and computer science to girls for 35 years.

“It sometimes took us the whole five years to deprogramme the fixed mindset some girls arrived with — boys are smarter at science and maths, especially physics and honours maths; engineering is for boys, while teaching is for girls.

"Encouraging girls to keep their life options open has to start long before even primary school — with the family conversation, the toys and games they are given, the conversations they hear.”

Mags, who is also EU Code Week Ambassador for Ireland, suggests parents look for books, toys, clubs and TV programmes that send messages of equality and worth to young girls from an early age.

“Reading books about women of the past is really important. The loveliest is the bestseller Women In Science by Rachel Ignotofsky, with great stories and quirky illustrations.

"TV and screen time in general can be a cause of embedding unconscious bias in both girls and boys — so many cartoons are boy hero orientated, with a token ‘pink’ passive girl character thrown in.

"Introduce young girls to a weekend Coderdojo or Coding Grace club, sit and learn with her, try out some simple programming together. The most powerful weapon of course is family conversations; they must be a place and time in which girls are made to feel equally valued, in which their ideas and ambitions are listened to and discussed.”

Someone else who sees it from all sides is software engineer and mum of three Anne-Marie McKenna. “All of the tech companies are currently trying hard to get more diversity in their organisations. I think there’s a general acknowledgement that this leads to better performance.

"The Accenture reports around STEM have proved very useful to the team in my company who have been trying to tackle the shortage of females in STEM at second level — the ‘barriers’ section has provided us with areas where we can try to make a difference.”

Accenture identified barriers such as assumptions that STEM subjects are difficult and “better fitting boys’ brains”.

Anne-Marie, who is from Cork, visits secondary schools to give talks to transition year students. “We describe our career paths, walk them through a typical day in the office and show some candid photos of us and our teams having fun and doing normal things!

"I think there’s a misconception out there — not just among kids but among teachers and some parents too — that to work in the high-tech industry you need to be a genius at maths and spend your days hunched over a computer coding frantically — this is just not true.” With her children, Anne-Marie sees the impact of the outside world already.

“I have a five-year-old who doesn’t like being referred to as ‘smart’, as it’s already a word she associates with boys. I can’t control the ideas she may pick up from others, but luckily I’m in a position to be able to show her through my career that girls can be scientists too.”

Mary Carty sums it up. “The ‘You can do anything you want’ message is not hitting home so we need to be more proactive. Have very straight and honest conversations with our boys — we have to raise our boys as feminists and to speak up when other kids say “Girls can’t do that”. We have to teach our boys to be advocates because they have to do better in this generation.

“We have to teach girls to speak up, say, ‘Actually, no, that was my idea’. Being a nice girl is great but being an effective girl is much, much better.”

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