Riki WilchinsAre We Missing the Impact of Feminine Gender Norms on Girls and STEM?

By: Riki Wilchins In: Economy| Education| Philanthropy

25 Apr 2013

Science, technology, engineering, and math—the “STEM” subjects—are an important focus of philanthropic institutions trying to address educational and economic disparities between girls and boys.

STEM-related fields account for an increasing number of new, and high-paying, positions being created in the knowledge economy. Especially for young women of color or in low-income communities, who already face additional social barriers in finding new and well-paid jobs, a strong STEM background can be a stepping stone to a better career.

Yet historically so many girls have dropped out of STEM courses by middle school there was even a special name for it—the “leaky pipeline.” And after decades of effort and philanthropic support, the field has made great strides in identifying and addressing a host of barriers to girls’ STEM achievement.

These include negative parental attitudes, unconscious teacher bias, “stereotype threat,” the girl-unfriendly climate in many computer labs, masculine teaching methods in STEM courses, and the lack of female role models.

When it was realized that girls were exiting STEM classes as soon as they became elective in middle school, some school systems simply stopped making them elective the final years of high school. As a result, while they’re not in any danger of surpassing boys, today a higher percentage of girls are taking STEM classes than ever.
Yet despite this progress, there are also signs that there are other barriers philanthropic institutions and practitioners have left unaddressed.

This has left some wondering if the leaky pipeline hasn’t been plugged, as much as delayed.

Could it be that along with all the external and interpersonal barriers we’ve addressed, there are personal ones as well, beginning with the girls’ own attitudes around femininity and STEM?

Through support from the Motorola Solutions Foundation, and with guidance from STEM leaders like the National Girls Collaborative Project at EdLab, the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) and Sally Ride Science, we’ve been convening some preliminary focus groups with young women of color to ask them what they think. The white paper of our results is posted online, along with a clearinghouse of key studies.

The question is interesting because mastering traditional norms of femininity and masculinity are a central rite of passage—perhaps the central rite of passage—for every young person. This can be especially true during the “gender intensification years” of late adolescence and early teens, when interest in traditional gender norms accelerates and belief in them starts to solidify.

This is when young men come under increasing pressure to “man up” and show their masculinity, which unfortunately does not include sitting quietly in class, docilely following teacher instruction, and keeping their nose buried in books. It’s also when young men of color, who previously did as well as or better than white peers, begin getting lower grades and increasing problems with school disciplinary regimes.

In fact, in early grades, girls often do as well as boys and express as much interest. It’s around late adolescence and early teens that the pipeline begins to leak in earnest. Even girls who had good STEM grades and previously expressed strong interest suddenly begin to get lower grades, express disinterest, and avoid elective STEM courses.

It’s widely acknowledged that most STEM courses—particularly the so-called “hard sciences” and engineering—are perceived as “masculine subjects.” Could it be that it’s in middle school that girls begin to feel caught in a double-bind, one in which they can either opt out of femininity or opt out of STEM, and STEM is the loser?

As the mother of a sixth-grade girl who wants to be a veterinarian, loves computers and thinks being home-schooled in science this summer would be “cool,” I have more than a passing interest in the answer.

In our groups, girls were quick to affirm that they could be both pretty and good at science and math. Yet in one group, after giving us the “right” answer, girls immediately described a pretty classmate with long hair who “no one sees as a pretty girl because she is so smart. She’s like a nerd.”

When asked specifically if they could be feminine, smart and popular with boys, their response was “Yes, but not in junior high!” This was followed by much laughter.

When we asked the girls why, they said because as they became more interested in boys, they had to “dumb it down.” So we presented them with studies showing that around third grade girls stop doing as well in math and science. They agreed with the studies.

In some ways, this has left us with more questions than answers. First, while we focused mostly on low-income girls of color, do these kinds of results vary by race and class, and if so how? Second, if there is a conflict between being feminine and being smart, why does it show up so much more with STEM than, say art or English? Moreover, some girls said they loved math in elementary school, but as they became more focused on being pretty, tending to their appearance, and getting boys’ attention in late elementary school, they fell behind. And once behind, catching up became impossible and they lost all interest in math.

Perhaps another reason the leaky pipeline shows up more in STEM than in art or English is because STEM achievement often builds on a prior foundation of knowledge. It may also turn out that better addressing feminine norms will make other methods for addressing STEM barriers more effective.

For instance, new studies have found that very feminine STEM role models may actually demotivate young girls, and that female STEM role models are no more effective than males because of assumptions about gender norms.

Whatever the final answers are, it seems clear that gender norms are a significant variable, and one at which researchers, practitioners, and philanthropic institutions must look more closely if we are to continue improving STEM interest and participation.

Riki Wilchins is executive director of TrueChild.

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