“To arouse interest, free of stereotypes”

6 Apr 2021

Why is it that fewer women than men choose to do STEM degrees? It’s not because of their skills, says LMU researcher Frank Niklas.

A girl and a boy play with plastic figures

Children internalize gender stereotypes very early on and distinguish between typical boys’ and girls’ toys. | © Kristin Gründler / AdobeStock

Frank Niklas is Professor of Educational Psychology and Family Studies at LMU Munich, where his research looks at how unequal educational opportunities shape people’s later life. The psychologist spoke with us about the supposed differences in men’s and women’s skills in scientific subjects.

The reason we’re having this conversation is that there are still fewer women than men opting for science degrees. What role do the early years play in determining what interests and skills children develop?

Frank Niklas: At kindergarten age, there are no gender-based differences in what boys and girls can do. Our research examines the precursor skills required for mathematical and language competency. For example, we look at how well children can distinguish between quantities and the numbers behind them and whether they recognize letters as symbols for language. Children who acquire these skills earlier and better go on to be better in school when it comes to formal numeracy or literacy learning. Our data sets show that, on average, girls are not better at language and boys are not better at math. These differences can only be observed from the primary school years onwards, towards the end of first grade.

How does the development of these skills proceed from there on?

Here, we can refer to data from international school studies such as PIRLS and PISA, which test the performance of 15-year-olds. These studies indeed show stereotypical differences between girls and boys in many countries of the world — but not in all. Germany is one of the countries where girls perform better than boys in literacy, and boys are slightly better in numeracy, according to these studies. The differences are fairly small, but they are there.

This naturally raises the question of where this gap comes from, a gap that then becomes bigger and bigger and in the long term is what partly leads to boys being more interested in STEM subjects and girls more often deciding against them.

And where does it come from?

There is no clear answer to that question. Genetic gender differences certainly do not seem to play a primary role. In contrast, gender stereotypes that prevail in society definitely have an influence on the different development of skills. Even three- and four-year-olds distinguish between typical boys’ and girls’ toys. Children internalize gender stereotypes very early on, and it’s impossible to say with any certainty where that comes from to such a strong degree.

In one of our studies, we also looked at young children’s view of themselves and asked them how highly they rated themselves in numeracy and literacy skills. And there we find gender differences a bit earlier, with boys rating themselves a bit better in math and girls a bit worse. But in general, boys compared to girls seem to overestimate their own abilities to a greater extent, regardless of the subject.

I believe that there is actually a lot in our society that causes children to quickly pick up on stereotypes. You only have to look at TV commercials that are clearly tailored to different genders, or you may go to any toy store, where there are separate aisles for girls and for boys. Even young children pick up on such repeated categorizations — which may be more or less subtle. And if they are repeatedly confronted with this, it has an impact on their development and their view of themselves.

So getting more women interested in STEM subjects is less about promoting girls’ numeracy skills and more about making sure they don’t forget they’re good at math in the first place?

Exactly. In psychology, we also talk about what’s known as the stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon that is not just evident in young children: Simply knowing that a stereotype exists leads to it actually being reflected in objectifiable performance.

If I, as a girl, know about the stereotype that girls aren’t that good at math, this causes me to be more nervous in a math test and it puts pressure on me to do well. That alone negatively affects my performance, regardless of whether the fear is justified or not.

Numerous studies have shown that this stereotype threat is not unique to supposed gender differences.

You said earlier that girls rate themselves as worse at math than at language from a fairly young age. Where does that come from?

Each and every one of us compares our own skills internally,both subconsciously and consciously. If you are very good at math, there is a tendency to rate your performance in language worse than it might objectively be, and vice versa. Girls who get very good feedback for their language skills may then draw the reverse conclusion that they are not so good at math — which may be wrong.

Prof. Dr. Frank Niklas | © LMU

Now, there are some very successful female scientists who obviously didn’t let themselves be dissuaded from being good at math. What can we learn from that?

When choosing their career, either they may have risen above these stereotypes or, conversely, they may have consciously thought ‘now more than ever’, in other words, they didn’t let it get them down and went the opposite way instead. And then there are, of course, personal inclinations. Just as some boys have no interest in math, there are girls who do.

If a person’s interests and skills in a subject are strong enough and they also get a sense of achievement from it, this strengthens their interest. As a result of this heightened interest, they become more involved with the subject matter and get even better at it. This creates what is known as a ‘virtuous cycle’ and that can eventually lead them to decide to pursue a profession in that field.

Unfortunately, the reverse spiral also exists, doesn’t it?

Yes, there is also a ‘vicious cycle’. That’s when those who experience failure in a subject increasingly lose interest in it and devalue it, think of it as not so important so that they do not have to feel too bad about it. This devaluation causes them to engage less with the subject and, consequently, develop less skills and experience further failures. So that leads to a negative spiral.

I think the gender differences we find in math skills as we get older are, at least to some extent, a function of this very feedback loop. On average, girls may be likely to get more negative feedback early on in math and boys may be more likely to get negative feedback in language. Here, the environment clearly plays an important role. Young children first have to see their interests unfold and their skills develop. They can only do this through interacting with others.

So if parents want to promote their children’s interests and skills, they shouldn’t entertain gender stereotypes, right?

Yes, it’s really important not to promote gender stereotypes. Parents should give their child the chance to develop his or her own interests, regardless of whether the child is a boy or a girl.

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