When you shop for the little girls in your life — whether daughters, granddaughters, nieces, etc. — do you walk right past the Legos and building blocks and head straight for the pink aisle with the Barbies and baby dolls? Now, don’t get me wrong; dolls are great toys for kids because they teach them how to be nurturing caregivers. But did you know that depriving little girls of those building blocks can actually keep them from achieving high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — also known as STEM fields?
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Believe it or not, the toys we encourage our kids to play with have a proven impact on their development and future adult lives. Gender labeling sends kids specific messages about who they are and what they are capable of achieving. This is particularly apparent when it comes to toys that encourage kids to explore STEM fields. According to a report published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) (2015), the stereotype that only boys are interested in or are good at these subjects discourages young girls from even taking an interest in these topics, resulting in a major under-representation of women in the STEM workforce that is still apparent today.
“By age 3, children can start articulating gender and racial stereotypes,” says Catherine Hill, vice president for Research at AAUW. “They are learning by what they see, and they are forming stereotypes from the world around them — from parents, teachers, daycare staff.”
Encouraging girls to play with STEM-related toys isn’t the only solution to this problem, but research shows it will help change a culture that forces us to toe the line along an unforgiving gender binary that discourages women from being involved in STEM fields.
The Gender Gap in STEM Fields is No Myth
The fact that there’s continued debate over the existence of wage and gender gaps in STEM fields is so disheartening, especially given the preponderance of research that illustrates not just that those gaps exist, but just how wide those gaps really are. While women make up about half of the U.S. workforce, they still remain highly underrepresented in STEM fields (National Girls Collaborative Project). According to the AAUW, in 2013 women in the United States made up only 39% of chemists, 26% of computer and math occupations, and 12% of engineers. That’s a pretty wide gap, one that even top tech companies are not immune to. 2014 data shows that only 17% of Google’s technical employees consist of women, 20% of Apple’s technical employees are women, 15% of Facebook’s are women and only 10% of Twitter’s are women (AAUW).
Colleen Layman, president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), has spent her entire career working in the power industry, which has always been “very heavily male-dominated.” According to Layman, early on in her career, she did not know very many women in professional roles; most women worked in administrative roles. “When I was a younger engineer — three or four years out — I looked around, and there weren’t a lot of female colleagues or executives.”
Representation in those fields is even worse for women of color. From 2006-2010, 8% of women engineers were white, while only 2% were Asian and Pacific Islander, and 1% were black or Latino (AAUW). In computing fields during that same time frame, white women made up 17% of the workforce, while 4% were Asian and Pacific Islander, 3% were black and 1% were Latino (AAUW). Today, only 1 in 10 women of color are employed as scientists and engineers (NGCP).
According to Layman, not only does the research support the lack of ethnic diversity in these fields, but SWE’s own membership reflects this diversity gap. “[Our membership consists of] very Caucasian and young Asian women. We see a lot less African American and Hispanic [members].”
Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end with simply getting women into STEM jobs. Only 50% of women remain in engineering jobs, while only 43% stay in computing jobs (AAUW). That’s far lower than the retention rate in other fields, such as nursing and finance, where only about 20% of women left positions in those industries (AAUW).
These numbers are compelling. No matter how you slice it, women still don’t have a seat at the table.
Causes of the Gender Gap
Explicit Gender Bias
Although we’ve made some strides toward gender equality in the last 30 years or so, gender bias continues to persist. In a 2012 report by the National Science Foundation, which was based on more than 5,500 survey responses from women in engineering, compared to women who stayed in the engineering field, women who left the engineering field were:
- more likely to observe sexist behaviors in the workplace,
- more likely to experience undermining behaviors by supervisors and coworkers,
- less likely to report opportunities for training and development, and
- less likely to report support for work/life balance.
What this shows is that women do not leave STEM fields because of something they are lacking; they leave because of work environments that are uncivil and unsupportive toward women. This is what experts call “explicit” bias, or a bias that is consciously held and that shapes how we evaluate our behavior toward certain groups of people (Handelsman & Sakraney, 2015).
While Layman says she has been very lucky throughout her career to be supported in the workplace, she has had to develop a “plan of attack” for those days her expertise is questioned because of her gender. Even though she has spent the bulk of her career moving between the office and construction sites, Layman says, “I still get this look of shock because I’m not there to bring coffee; I’m the technical expert. There’s always pressure within the first 5-10 minutes to prove I deserve to be there. I think women in general have that pressure, particularly when they move from the office to the floor or construction site and have to prove their skills hands-on with the equipment.”
Implicit Gender Bias
Even more troublesome are the biases we don’t even realize we feel. According to the AAUW, “women and men are exposed to the same stereotypes about women in math and science in U.S. culture and, on average, acquire the same implicit or unconscious ‘science/math=male’ biases by age 7 or 8.” The key here is that this bias is implicit, not explicit, which means that it’s an unconscious assumption that influences our judgment and perceptions of others (Handelsman & Sakarney, 2015). In other words, while we may not realize we believe men are better than women at STEM subjects, studies have shown that we still maintain an unconscious belief that affects how we talk to children, how we pick toys for them, how we teach them in school, and much more (AAUW).
Hill points out that there are minor cognitive differences between males and females, but neither gender is at a true advantage over the other when a good education is provided. “Boys tend to have an advantage when it comes to spatial skills, where girls have an advantage in verbal skills,” says Hill. “For boys, it’s important to get their verbal skills in place, and for girls, it’s important to look at spatial skills and early math concepts. What’s great about this period of life [early childhood] is that your mind is so malleable, and if you adopt a growth mindset, you can change your brain and learn more.”
In other words, STEM skills are learned, not innate (AAUW), but gender bias has a negative impact on girls’ interest in STEM subjects starting at a very early age. According to the American Psychological Association, not only does this create the perception that science and math is a “boy thing,” it also causes girls to perform poorly on academic tests as a result of stereotype threat, or the fear of proving a negative stereotype correct, further proving to girls that math and science just isn’t for them.
Why Does Women’s Representation Matter?
Most STEM innovations are developed by a workforce dominated by white males, meaning those innovations are developed with that perspective and experience in mind. Diversity, when nurtured appropriately, leads to better innovations that are more meaningful to the general population. According to Marina Lee, founder and CEO of the Women in Tech Network, women contribute to diversity, and diversity helps a company’s bottom line. When you remove that population from the workforce, Lee says, you remove a crucial pool of talent.
Layman seconds this call for diversity. “We’re in a growing global economy where everything moves so quickly and innovation is the substance of everything. We need diversity of opinions, ideas, perspective.”
STEM jobs are also some of the highest paying jobs in the U.S., so women’s under-representation in those fields contributes to the undeniable wage gap. Given the demand for skilled workers in STEM fields, it only makes sense to tap into under-represented populations.
What Can We Do?
Anyone can make a positive contribution toward gender equality in STEM fields, starting with the children in our own lives. Hill recommends introducing girls to STEM concepts as early as preschool by playing games that teach spatial skills, such as building, drawing and putting things together. Boys and girls should be encouraged to play together to discourage segregated play so they learn boys and girls are really more alike than they are different. To continue to build girls’ confidence in these areas — and to teach boys that girls can do math and science, too — it’s also important to introduce children to mentors and role models, such as moms working STEM jobs.
Other recommendations the AAUW offers for how to encourage young girls to explore STEM include:
- Teach girls that STEM subjects are learned, not innate
- Provide girls with opportunities to tinker, take things apart and put them back together
- Introduce girls to STEM subjects outside of the school setting
- Encourage girls to take math and science classes
Lee encourages parents to treat their boys and girls equally. “Let children play with whatever toys they want to play with. Boys don’t just need to play with trucks and building blocks, and girls don’t just need to play with dolls. We need to look at our own unconscious bias as parents and caretakers.”
Layman says, “We need to change what society expects. Girls are naturally just as creative as boys. They have the desire to build and make things and make their fantasies come alive like boys do, and we need to give them that opportunity.”
Alternately, we can’t forget the little boys who might enjoy playing with some of those stereotypically pink toys. Hill says, “Boys who are interested in art, drawing, clay, feel like they have to go to the ‘girls’ aisle to get that. We don’t want to steer our kids in ways that are so predetermined.”
As you’re walking down that toy aisle, take gender out of the equation and consider what skills you want the child to learn. Whether they grow up to become a physicist, chemist, artist, nurse, or stay-at-home parent, it is important to give children the opportunity to learn that they can truly be anything they want to be.
American Psychological Association. (2006). Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap. Retrived from http://www.apa.org/research/action/stereotype.aspx.
Corbett, C., and Hill, C. (2015). Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing. The American Association of University Women. Retrieved from http://www.aauw.org/research/solving-the-equation/.
Handelsman, J., and Sakraney, N. (2015). Implicit Bias. White House Office of Science and Technology. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/bias_9-14-15_final.pdf.
National Girls Collaborative Project. (2013). The State of Girls and Women in Stem. Retrieved from http://ngcproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/ngcpstemstats_web.pdf.