International Women in Science Conference


Rosalind Chait Barnett

Understanding the role of pervasive negative gender stereotypes: what can be done?

Much attention has been drawn to the fact that women are under-represented in math and science. However, there are signs that the situation may be improving. Women scientists now hold prominent positions in academia and industry. For example, the president of MIT is a woman neuroscientist. Colleges and universities are increasing their efforts at attracting female undergraduates to science and math majors. Industry sponsors science days in the classroom, competitive science fairs, and science camps. Popular TV shows feature women in science careers.

Yet the root cause of this problem has, in my opinion, not been addressed. Pervasive negative - and erroneous - stereotypes about women and science persist. The dominant stereotype is that boys are good at math and girls are not. This myth reflects the general belief that girls and boys are so different that what is good for one sex is not good or appropriate for the other. These stereotypes are extremely pervasive and affect all of us, to some extent. Ominously, we pass these stereotypes on, albeit unconsciously - to our children. With respect to parents, these stereotypes affect the toys parents buy for their young daughters, the learning opportunities they provide for them, and the reinforcements they give when their daughters show early promise in math or science.

Toy manufacturers and advertisers also perpetuate the myth by claiming certain toys are for boys and others are for girls. The marketing is so effective that many parents feel that they should not buy a toy for their daughter if it is displayed on the boys' aisle. What toys are on the boys' and girls' aisles? A 2006 Christmas catalog for Toys "R" Us -a major U.S. toy retailer - is instructive. There are no pictures of girls on its sports page, while boys are seen playing basketball, riding an arcade-style motorcycle, and playing an electronic hockey game. No girls are seen in two pages of action-figure toys, nor in two pages of cars and trucks. Two pages devoted to building, feature boys playing with Legos, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. Girls are offered Cinderella Castle blocks and a cheap toddler block set.

Teachers also play a role, however subtly, in steering girls away from interest in math and science. Studies show that even when 3rd and 4th grade teachers knew the math aptitude scores of the boys and girls in their classes, they believe that boys were more talented in math. Parents and children pick up on teachers' beliefs. Is it any wonder that young girls begin to doubt their math ability? Moreover, children's perceptions affect their choice of courses, college majors, and eventual careers.

These stereotypes and the behaviors they promote dissuade girls from pursuing math and science-related activities, thereby eliminating many girls from the pool of youngsters to whom high-school and college-level programs are addressed. To keep as many girls as possible in the talent pool, teachers and parents need to be made aware of and learn how to challenge their own gender stereotypes.


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