Women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics etc. In the field of engineering, women earned fewer than 20 per cent of doctorates in 2014.Such gaps, however, are not the result of differences in intellectual ability. Girls currently make up over half of the United States’ gifted student population. Girls have the smarts needed for success in STEM but there are many factors due to which they don’t pursue education and careers in these fields?As early as first grade, girls are less likely than boys to associate their own gender with intellectual ability. Given how pervasive these stereotypes are, how can parents and teachers step in and shield girls from the belief that they’re less intellectually capable – and therefore less suited to STEM – than boys?One potential strategy is to help girls adopt a growth mindset, or the belief that their abilities can be developed as opposed to being static and unchangeable. Negative stereotypes rest on the assumption that girls lack innate ability needed for success. Emphasising how skills change and develop over time challenges this belief.When promoting a growth mindset, it’s essential to convey that effort and strategies build ability, and that it is true for everyone – not just girls. For example, a teacher or parent might say, ‘Anyone who wants to become good at math has to practice by doing lots of problems, especially hard ones that they can learn from.’ Unless effort is made to seem normal for everyone, parents and teachers may unintentionally suggest that girls need to work extra hard to compensate for low ability.Another component of fostering a growth mindset is to frame failure as a learning opportunity instead of something to be avoided or brushed under the carpet, when it occurs. This can be done by focusing on the learning process – for example, discovering where the mistakes come from and troubleshooting new strategies for next time. When children see how their efforts have paid off, they’ll be more likely to view STEM ability from a growth perspective.Stereotypes can also be challenged by exposing girls to examples of women who have succeeded in STEM.The key is to portray these women as relatable and to highlight how they became scientists, making it easier for girls to envision themselves following a similar path to success.Another strategy is to provide opportunities for girls to succeed at STEM-related tasks to begin building their confidence. For example, a teacher might frame a programming assignment as a game instead, which might help young girls feel more motivated and capable of success.When children imagine themselves holding different jobs in the future, they might question whether they are similar to the people who tend to have those jobs. A mismatch between a young person’s self-concept and their impression of the members in a certain field can make the field seem like an unattractive career option. Similarly, scientists’ work is assumed to be lonely and isolating. It is also seen as being done in pursuit of self-centered goals, such as satisfying one’s curiosity, as opposed to altruistic goals, such as helping others.These cultural images act as a barrier for girls specifically: Girls are socialised to think of themselves as different from the average scientist on most of these dimensions, leading them to favour fields populated by people with whom they more readily identify and who have more altruistic goals.To counteract the effects of these images, parents and teachers can introduce children to diverse and relatable examples of people in STEM.Parents and teachers might also tell children that scientists often work together in teams and invent things that help people in everyday lives.These types of messages are likely to help both girls and boys because they reveal a deeper purpose for learning STEM-related subjects.
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