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Getting Girls Interested in Science

Forget the notion that girls just aren't that naturally interested in STEM. Turns out our culture might be turning them off before they even get a chance to understand and enjoy scientific subjects.

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There's a gender gap in science, and it's not new. Boys tend to outperform girls on tests in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and while the achievement gap has narrowed in the past few years, it's still true that fewer girls than boys ultimately end up pursuing those subjects into college and the professional world. The rift is particularly evident in the more math-intensive fields like physics and computer science.

Why does this gap in performance exist? It may not be for the reason you think. It's not necessarily that girls aren't capable scientists, or not interested in the subject. Instead, some contend that it's because they are discouraged from following these interests.

Science stereotypes

Starting when they're young, girls encounter myriad messages that they might not "belong" in science. These messages come from culture, from their peers and, perhaps even unintentionally, from authority figures.

A 2010 report from the American Association of University Women explored the social and environmental barriers girls face when it comes to STEM subjects. Teachers report very young girls showing an equal enthusiasm for science as boys, but somewhere around middle school that begins to change. That's the age when kids naturally become more self-conscious, more concerned with friends and building their image.

Oftentimes, science and math aren't seen as "cool" subjects, and that can make it hard for a girl to stick with it, regardless of her interest level. And when women are underrepresented among science educators and mentors, as they often are, that lack of visible role models can make it even harder.

Of course, boys risk being labeled as "geeks" for liking science, too. STEM subjects are no walk in the park for either gender, but girls – in addition to risking social fallout for liking science – are also getting the message that they're not supposed to be good at it.

Are boys naturally better at science and math?

Science, math and engineering have traditionally been considered "male" subjects, while writing, art and humanities belong to girls. Many people believe that boys and men are biologically better equipped for the more math-intensive fields.

But a recent test given to students across the world suggests the gender gap in science has more to do with culture – political inequality between the genders – than with genetics. In cultures (like ours) where the norm is to assign the more math-intensive subjects to men and boys, and more social-oriented ones to girls, the achievement gap is larger than in cultures that do not assign those differences to the genders.

From the girl who gets a doll when her brother gets a Lego set to the physics teacher who subconsciously calls on boys more often than girls in class, those cultural norms are pervasive and hard to overcome. Young girls internalize those messages, and that can actually influence what subjects they prefer and guide them away from science and math, the 2010 AAUW report found.

If girls believe they are biologically not cut out for math and science, that can result in lower aspirations, studies suggest. They may not try as hard on tests in those subjects, only reaffirming the negative message.

Give a girl the idea that she has to be exceptional to succeed in a "male" field like science or math, and she may let herself be pushed elsewhere.

Building confidence

The U.S. Department of Education has found that girls – and boys – who have "a strong self-concept regarding their abilities in math or science" are more likely to choose to pursue science subjects and, importantly, more likely to perform well in those areas. This suggests that improving girls' confidence in their science abilities could actually influence their performance and choices. But the issue runs deep, and to address it we need to start at the beginning, before girls are exposed to that negative messaging.

Instead of thinking in terms of fixed abilities, parents and educators should emphasize each child's potential for growth, says Sarah Jacobs, who runs design-and-robotics haven The Robot Garage in Birmingham with her husband, Jonathan. Their three daughters all have found a way to apply their unique interests and talents at The Robot Garage, though only one is strongly interested in engineering, Jacobs says.

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