Some stereotypes can be true on average – like that snakes or spiders are often dangerous. We often use stereotypes like this as a mental shortcut – such as treating these creatures with caution. But they can also cause a lot of harm when used to make incorrect assumptions about individual people.
Adults are important for pushing back against false stereotypes that girls don’t like STEM or aren’t as good at math or science as boys. These types of stereotypical messages make it harder to learn, remember information, or communicate about ideas. When you hear people say these sorts of things, watch out for potentially harmful stereotypes. The next section will include tips on how you can change the narrative.
This sort of thinking can lead beyond becoming aware of gender stereotypes to starting to believe it themselves.
The last section considers how educators can ensure their programs are inclusive for young girls as well as boys.
Young children tend to have strong in-group biases, especially when it comes to gender. This means most elementary schoolers feel very positively about their gender in-group. For example, you may notice some girls gravitate toward playing with other girls.
Over the course of later elementary and middle school, children become more aware of societal gender stereotypes. “Awareness” of stereotypes means that they realize that other people hold these beliefs. The awareness of gender stereotypes about STEM increases between elementary and middle school.
Children pick up on these stereotypes from parents, teachers, peers, books, and media (tv shows and movies). Here are common ways children may make inferences about typical gender stereotypes:
Did you know that merely being aware of these gender stereotypes can affect how well students do on STEM tasks! Many children (but not all) may not only be “aware” of but also “endorse” gender stereotypes, which means that they personally believe the stereotypes are true.
Stereotypes can create self-fulfilling prophecies. They can affect the way that children see themselves. If girls believe in the stereotypes that they will not enjoy or be good at STEM, then they are unlikely to participate in these activities, missing out on chances to improve their skills and discover how much they actually do like STEM.
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The Lyda Hill Foundation & the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. (2018). Portray her: Representations of women STEM characters in media. https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/portray-her-full-report.pdf
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Wang, M. M., Cardarelli, A., Leslie, S. J., & Rhodes, M. (2022). How children’s media and teachers communicate exclusive and essentialist views of science and scientists. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication.