Study: Kids stereotype tech as being for boys and not girls – but not for the reason you might expect

(Annie Spratt / Unsplash Photo)

New research from the University of Washington and the University of Houston found that gender stereotypes around computer science and engineering for kids can start in first grade and stretch through high school.

While disappointing, it’s not entirely surprising. The gender diversity of high school students taking AP computer science classes, for example, has increased over recent years, but female students still make up fewer than 30% of those taking the AP exam.

“There’s been a lot of research on ‘ability stereotype’ — that boys are better than girls at math and science,” said Allison Master, an assistant professor of Psychological, Health and Learning Sciences at the University of Houston and the study’s lead author.

“But this is the first study to say we also have these societal stereotypes that boys are more interested in computers and robots and engineering than girls are,” Master said. “What effect do those kinds of perceptions have on young girls?”

In studies that surveyed more than 2,200 kids, 51% of the children and teens said that girls are less interested than boys in computer science, and 63% of them said that girls are less interested in engineering.

When asked if girls are more interested than boys in computer science, only 14% said that was the case, and only 9% said girls are more interested in engineering.

The results suggest that the efforts to attract more girls to computer science and engineering should not only focus on showing girls that they can be intellectually successful in these areas. The efforts need to convince them that they want to try it in the first place, that these are subjects that are appealing to girls like themselves.

The peer-reviewed research was published online last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The other authors are UW psychology professors Andrew Meltzoff and Sapna Cheryan; Meltzoff is also co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

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The stereotype study researchers, from left to right: Allison Master, assistant professor of Psychological, Health and Learning Sciences at the University of Houston; Andrew Meltzoff, UW psychology professor and co-director of Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences; and Sapna Cheryan, UW psychology professor. (UH and UW Photos)

In the study, computer science was described as computer coding, and engineering was characterized as creating and designing structures like roads and bridges, or creating new products using scientific methods.

The professors conducted additional, smaller studies as well. In that research with 172 kids, the children were given two activities to choose from — after being told about gender preferences toward the activities. When told that boys liked computer science more than girls, only 35% of girls selected that activity. When told that boys and girls were equally interested, 65% of girls selected the computer science activity.

The results, Master said, speak to a person’s sense of belonging.

Telling the girls that others of their gender weren’t interested in computer science “made girls feel like they wouldn’t belong when they did that activity,” she said. “Even at ages 8 and 9, girls are sensitive to that kind of information.”

But what if girls really are less interested in computer science and engineering?

“The stereotypes create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“The stereotypes create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Master said. The fact that the girls were more interested in the computer science task when bias was not introduced backs the assertion. “We’re never going to be able to change the situation until we can address some of the effects of these stereotypes,” Master said.

Master suggested that parents and teachers think about the messages they’re sending kids. That includes explicit statements, as well as the activities they’re encouraging girls to engage in, such as classes, summer camps and after school clubs.

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The research found that the stereotypes held true across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, and the Bezos Family Foundation.

A 2017 study by the same group of researchers demonstrated that by first grade, children are already embracing stereotypes around abilities, believing that boys are better than girls at robotics and programming. At the same time, the kids said that girls and boys were equally good or their own gender was better at math and other sciences.

Master has a new grant from the NSF to look at middle school students signing up for introductory computer science classes and test an intervention in schools to try to recruit more girls to the classes.

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