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The misconception that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering begins at a young age in the United States.
And it's one reason for the gender gap in those career fields, according to a new study.
In surveys of more than 2,200 U.S. children and teens in grades 1 through 12, researchers found that half — 51% — believed girls are less interested than boys in computer science.
Moreover, 63% said girls are less interested in engineering, while only 14% said girls are more interested than boys in computer science, and only 9% said girls are more interested in engineering.
The researchers also conducted lab studies with a smaller number of children. They found that only 35% of girls chose a computer science activity when they were told boys were more interested in it than girls, but two-thirds of girls chose such an activity when told girls and boys were equally interested it.
The study was published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We discovered that labeling an activity in a stereotyped way influenced children's interest in it and their willingness to take it home — the mere presence of the stereotype influenced kids in dramatic ways," said study co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
"This brought home to us the pernicious effect of stereotypes on children and teens," he added in a school news release.
Teachers and parents can make a difference by providing high-quality computer science and engineering activities early in elementary school and encouraging girls' participation, the study authors suggested.
According to lead author Allison Master, "Stereotypes that STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] is for boys begin in grade school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made their decision not to pursue degrees in computer science and engineering because they feel they don't belong." Master is an assistant professor of psychological, health and learning sciences at the University of Houston.
Computer science and engineering careers are lucrative, high status and influence many aspects of daily life. It's important that they be diversified, the researchers said.
UNESCO has more on females and STEM.
SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, Nov. 22, 2021
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