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How Gender Stereotyping Impacts Women in STEM

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Women once dominated the world of coding. One of the first software businesses in the U.S., CompInc., was founded in 1958 by a woman, Elsie Shutt, who hired female programmers.

"Women are 'naturals' at computer programming," pioneer computer scientist Grace Hopper told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1967. "Programming is just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it's ready when you need," she continued. James Adams, director of education for the Association for Computing Machinery, was quoted in the same article saying, "I don't know of any other field, outside of teaching, where there's as much opportunity for a woman."

By 1987, 42 per cent of the software developers in the U.S. were female, and continued growth seemed secure. "For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned computer science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984," wrote Thomas J. Misa in his book Gender Codes: Why Women are Leaving Computing.

So What Happened?

Today, computer science is dominated by men, as this report by AAUW shows. Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Statistics Canada data shows that women accounted for 39 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree in 2011, compared with 66 per cent in non-STEM programs.

The underlying reasons for this gender imbalance are complex but research suggests gender stereotyping from the earliest age impacts the enrollment of women in STEM.

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Photo: Let Toys Be Toys

Gendered Toys

Toys communicate important messages about gender expectations and stereotypes. For instance, in this flyer, which distinguishes between toys for girls and boys, the girls are presented in deferential poses, as princesses who play at organizing their shoes. Boys are presented in power stances, making a stop sign with their hand and wielding a light saber. Body language conveys a lot about our attitudes and perceptions, particularly about ourselves, as explained by Amy Cuddy in her wildly popular TED talk.

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Photo: KickAction.ca


Toys continue to be promoted as being "for boys" or "for girls." The UK-based organization Let Toys be Toys is demanding that toy and publishing industries "stop limiting children's interests by promoting some toys and books as being only for girls, and others as only for boys." Some publishers have finally removed the "for girls" or "for boys" labelling of their children's books.

Self-Confidence

Loss of confidence in their abilities has an impact on girls' enrollment in STEM. The Youth in Transition Survey by Statistics Canada shows that young men often have a better opinion of their abilities than do young women. Fifty per cent of young men perceived their ability in math as "very good" or "excellent" compared with 37 per cent of young women, and those who perceived their mathematical skills more positively were more likely to choose a STEM program at university. Confidence is key.

Parental Attitudes

Parents provide more math-supportive environments for sons than for daughters, according to a study by the University of Michigan. Even well-intentioned parents can have unconscious bias, which affects the way they interact with sons and daughters. Recognizing implicit bias can be difficult but this Harvard implicit bias test helps raise self-awareness. Interestingly, the same study by the University of Michigan also suggests that a father's attitudes about girls and STEM influence their daughter's choice to pursue STEM. The degree to which a father's opinion matches traditional (and limiting) gender stereotypes can directly impact his daughter's interest in math. This demonstrates the important role and potentially positive influence of supportive fathers in encouraging girls in STEM.

PC and Marketing

In 1984, the percentage of women in computer science started to fall, although numbers of women enrolled in other disciplines, such as law and medicine, continued to climb. This NPR article links this shift in enrollments to the arrival of the personal computer (PC) with direct marketing to boys. As the article outlines, "This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture." Girls were not presented as being interested in PCs and subsequently did not see themselves reflected in the growing computer culture.

Casual Sexism

Casual sexism, which comes in many forms -- commercials, toys, phrases, jokes, apparel or posters, among others, helps build and sustain a hostile environment towards women. The casual sexism debate took the Internet by storm in 2014 when astrophysicist Matt Taylor was interviewed about the Rosetta mission (#shirtstorm). Taylor's shirt was printed with scantily clad, cartoon women -- extraordinarily inappropriate attire for a professional setting. The shirt was offensive and exclusionary. Taken together, "just" an offensive shirt or a sexist ad or a book "just" for girls, contributes to a society that says women don't belong. As astronomer Phil Plait said, "No one cut does the deed. In the end, they all do."

So What Can We Do?

Recognizing implicit or systemic gender bias is the first step towards equity. We must fix structures and/or processes that support or enable bias. We must support and encourage girls and women in STEM and promote women to decision-making committees, boards and speaking panels at conferences. We must address the gender pay gap within our institutions as was done recently at one Canadian university.

We need to call out casual sexism. Men and women must be equal partners in raising families and building a life. A recent blog post by Australian scientist Jenny Martin describes what we all can do. Parents, especially fathers, need to recognize and boycott gendered toys and books and spend equal time with all our children on STEM-related toys and activities. Most importantly, we need to help girls feel more self-confident about their abilities in STEM and to let them know that we want and need their voices and contributions to build a better world for tomorrow.

Correction: A previous version of this blog mistakenly referred to Ann Cuddy, her name is actually Amy Cuddy.

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