Allison Master is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. Sapna Cheryan is an associate professor in the UW Department of Psychology. Andrew N. Meltzoff is the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair and Co-Director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. Here, they explain their research on the stereotypes that discourage young girls from taking computer science and other STEM courses in school, a problem that they say — if left unaddressed — could stymie efforts to expand access to STEM education.  — Emma Brown

By Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan, and Andrew N. Meltzoff

Despite valiant efforts to recruit more women, the gender gap in the fields collectively known as STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — is not getting any better. The gaps in computer science and engineering are the largest of any major STEM discipline. Nationally, less than 20% of bachelor’s degrees in these fields go to women. Women are missing out on great jobs, and society is missing out on the innovations women could be making in new technology.

Good work is being done to solve this problem in college and the workplace. But we need to start earlier and set a strong foundation.

Stereotypes are a powerful force driving girls away from these fields. Even though stereotypes are often inaccurate, children absorb them at an early age and are affected by them.

Two stereotypes push young girls away from STEM. The first is about the culture of STEM: Who belongs in STEM, and what do they do? One popular image of computer science is that it’s for “geeky” guys who sit alone writing code all day.

We recently proved that this stereotype affects girls by high-school age, and we think it starts before then.

We showed pictures of two computer-science classrooms to Seattle-area high school students. One classroom showed a stereotypical image of computer science, featuring things like science fiction posters. The other one challenged that image with things like art and nature posters.

Girls were three times more likely to want to take computer science when the classroom was non-stereotypical. The alternative classroom didn’t deter the boys, who were just as interested regardless of the classroom design.

The “geeky” stereotype makes many girls think they don’t belong in computer science. We need to redesign classrooms and change the media stories about computer science. If we can show a broader picture of who belongs there, we can get more girls willing to give computer science a try.

Of course, stereotypes don’t dissuade all girls. There are individual differences. Some girls aren’t bothered by the stereotypes, just like some boys don’t like the stereotypes. If we change the stereotypes, we open the door to many more girls and boys who wouldn’t otherwise consider computer science.

The second stereotype that shapes the STEM gender gap is about ability. Our culture persists in thinking that boys are better at math and science.

Research in our lab shows that children believe gender stereotypes about math and technology as early as second grade. By the time girls get to high school, the belief that they are less talented in STEM is already ingrained. Why risk trying something new when the cultural stereotype predicts they won’t succeed?

To make a real difference, we need to change the messages we send to young girls and boys. We must tell them that they belong, that it’s good to take on new challenges and stretch themselves, and that they can succeed in computer science. We must show them that computer science is for everyone, not just “geeks,” and that it involves finding creative ways to help others.

And we must start early before societal stereotypes take hold.

Twice as many high schools now offer AP Computer Science, compared to a decade ago. Even more schools say they want to add computer science to their curriculum. But this will make no difference unless we can convince more girls to enter these classrooms. The best way to encourage girls is to remove the stereotypes keeping them out.