Popular Misconceptions About Women in STEM

The following is a list of common misconceptions about women in STEM fields. Scroll to right to find out the facts.

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION: Women are inferior to men in STEM abilities    

 

FACT: WOMEN AND MEN HAVE THE SAME ABILITIES IN STEM

Girls in the U.S. outperform boys in STEM courses throughout grade school. However, boys have historically outperformed girls on standardized tests – leading to the misconception that they have greater STEM abilities. Toward the end of high school, girls start to endorse stereotypes that they have inferior STEM abilities and have less positive attitudes towards STEM. Research continually shows that gender differences in performance on standardized tests in STEM is a reflection of social stereotypes about ability – with women who stop worrying about confirming gender stereotypes performing at the same level as men.

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION: Men are naturally more interested in STEM fields than women

FACT: INTERESTS VARY AND ARE SOCIALLY INFLUENCED

Success in STEM fields tends to be described with stereotypically-masculine characteristics (e.g., autonomy, rational thought, logic, higher order thinking), while stereotypically-feminine characteristics (e.g., social skills, caring for others) are believed to be incompatible with STEM.

Girls and women internalize these stereotypes.  When they associate STEM with “masculine” instead of “feminine” characteristics, they do not see STEM interests and activities as matching part of their female identity.

The fact that women are less visible in STEM fields further perpetuates these beliefs about gender (i.e., “this field isn’t for women” or “this is men’s work”). A sense of belonging influences women’s interest, persistence, and success in STEM fields.

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION: Women are naturally more interested in care giving occupations (e.g., nursing, teaching)

FACT: INTERESTS VARY AND ARE SOCIALLY INFLUENCED

Girls are told early in life that they should be good at communal pursuits (i.e., working with, or helping other people) and display feminine characteristics (e.g., kindness, caring, communicative). Thus, women often feel compelled to choose communal occupations, even within STEM fields (e.g., psychology, medicine, veterinary sciences, biology, rather than physics or philosophy) and within the same discipline (e.g., biomedical engineering rather than mechanical engineering; environmental engineering rather than atmospheric sciences).

Women also tend to believe they have stronger abilities in communal occupations, despite the fields requiring similar math and science skills.

A sense of belonging and identification with a specific field influences both women’s and men’s interest, persistence, and success in that field. There is variability in women’s interest, persistence and success in care giving fields across cultures and timeFor example, teaching in the U.S. was an elite and exclusively male profession until primary education became compulsory for all children.

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION: STEM success requires natural STEM talent

 

FACT: STEM SUCCESS REQUIRES EFFORT

Most individuals believe that human characteristics, like intelligence, are fixed and unchangeable. Many people tend to interpret challenges and disappointing outcomes in their lives as due to internal traits.  For example, “I failed this math test because I’m not smart enough”.

Research indicates that individuals who believe, or are taught, that abilities are changeable and can be developed with effort show higher levels of resilience and achievement on challenging tasks and in difficult academic courses.

Women and other under-represented groups in STEM disciplines who know that STEM achievement is about effort and not just “talent” are more likely to persist and succeed in STEM.

In the U.S., STEM fields are stereotyped as requiring talents that are assumed to be innate to men, while women are assumed to have innate talents that are incompatible with STEM.  Therefore, people believe that women do well in STEM because they are diligent, while men are believed to do well because they are naturally gifted.

The misconception that women are not “naturally” adept in STEM can be internalized by girls and women.  This is known as an attribution bias:  women attribute their failure to being women, but attribute their success to personal effort (while men assume the opposite). The result of this misconception is that women self-select themselves out of STEM at higher levels of education than men.

 

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION:  Women’s and men’s math test scores accurately reflect their math ability

 

FACT:  WOMEN’S AND MEN’S MATH SCORES ARE INFLUENCED BY “STEREOTYPE THREAT”  

Women’s and men’s math scores are influenced by dominant gender stereotypes about ability in math. This phenomenon is called “Stereotype Threat”.

In cultures where women’s math ability is presumed inferior, this belief can depress women’s performance, especially on standardized tests.  When there is a stereotype that a group is poor at something, that group’s performance is negatively affected. Studies have shown that women who care about math perform worse in situations where being a woman is made salient, due to threat of confirming the negative stereotype.

 

However, if women are told that there are no gender differences in performance on a particular test, this threat/interference is reduced, and women perform equally as well as men.

It is also the case that a positive stereotype of being good at math can boost interest and persistence in math, and ultimately improve performance.  This is called “stereotype lift”, and it is what men in the U.S. enjoy with regard to math performance.

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION: Female mentors and role models are irrelevant to women’s success in STEM

 

FACT:  WE NEED FEMALE MENTORS AND ROLE MODELS

For both women and men, same-sex mentors and models promote identification with and engagement in STEM. Same-sex experts in a field promote self-efficacy, domain identification, and commitment to pursue STEM occupations.

Because the majority of leaders in most STEM fields are men, male students have easy access to many models and mentors who are “like them”. Conversely, deliberate action/intervention needs to be taken to provide female students with female STEM models and mentors.

Having mentors of the same gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or background can help students from underrepresented groups to feel included and capable. In addition, intervention research with ethnic minorities indicates that focusing on mentor similarity in terms of attitudes, values, and outlook produces the strongest positive effects on a mentee’s levels of satisfaction.

POPULAR MISCONCEPTION: Women can’t successfully balance being a scientist and having a family 

 

FACT: MANY SUCCESSFUL FEMALE SCIENTISTS HAVE POSITIVE FAMILY EXPERIENCES  

(Even though working women are still expected to take primary responsibility for home & parenting roles)

Managing work and family life can be more challenging for women than for men.  Women are expected to take primary responsibility for home & parenting roles, in addition to being a scientist, while men are encouraged to devote themselves to their science and to expect that their home and family life will be taken care of by women.

However, employers are increasingly recognizing the need to support working mothers through maternity leave and childcare options.  The concept of masculinity is also changing, with more men taking active roles in parenting and childcare.

Despite that many women feel guilty about working while having a family, recent studies show that children of working mothers are more successful, caring, and concerned about gender equality.  They are also more likely to personally challenge gender stereotypes about what both women and men are good at and interested in.

We need to stop questioning women’s ability to balance work and family life, and we need to question the low expectation for men to contribute to home and care giving responsibilities. When women occupy poorly paid, low-status jobs, they are not asked about their work/family balance, nor are they expected to leave work to take care of family. Work/family balance questions are raised only for women in high-status positions – often because their position challenges the status-quo.

 

Go here to read the scientific literature about popular misconceptions of women in STEM. To read some articles (both popular literature and news) about women in STEM go here.