By Deirdre Francks '20
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a headline from the New York Times that gave me pause. The headline read, “Why Young Girls Don’t Think They Are Smart Enough.”
Unfortunately, I– like most people who consume any news media– am no stranger to headlines like this one. It can be exhausting to read study after study confirming the many ways that girls are socialized differently than boys; to behave differently, to think differently about the world, and perhaps most importantly, to think differently about themselves. Researchers have long been exploring how socialization contributes to the gender disparity in many fields, notably in STEM and politics, and how girls may be socialized to consider their own intelligence. What separated this article from the rest was a single word: enough.
The NYT article describes a study of 96 children between the ages of five and seven, through which researchers found that by the age of six girls are significantly less likely than boys to associate their own gender with brilliance. When the young participants were shown four pictures of children– two male, two female– and asked to identify the character most likely to do very well in school the six year old girls picked mostly girl characters. However, when the prompt was altered to identifying the character most likely to be “really, really smart” the girls picked mostly boy characters. Similarly, when shown two unfamiliar board games and told that one was for really smart children and the other for children who try really hard, the researchers found young girls to be significantly less willing than boys to play the first game.
This is where the word enough comes into play. The important distinction to draw from this study is that young girls recognize that females can perform well in school and be smart if they work hard, but they are unlikely to associate their own gender with inherent brilliance. To this point, the authors of the paper write, “women are underrepresented in fields thought to require brilliance – fields that include some of the most prestigious careers in our society, such as those in science and engineering. It may be that the roots of this underrepresentation stretch all the way back to childhood” (Cimpian & Leslie).
What really gets me about this study is that if I’d been one of those participants, answering those questions as the age of six, I would likely have answered the same way.
Somewhere in the depths of my childhood closet, tucked in the pocket of a tattered, middle school binder, there is a clip-art style drawing of a white man in a lab coat with frizzy hair, round glasses, and a beaker in hand. The prompt scribbled at the top reads, What does a scientist look like? As Paula Denise Johnson writes in her dissertation on girls and science, “when students are asked to draw a scientist, the vast majority of their drawings are of white men. Lurking behind these drawings is the disturbing myth of the math “gene.” This is the erroneous, but strongly held, perception that there is a genetic or biological basis for gender differences in STEM” (Johnson, 29).
When I drew this interpretation of a scientist I was in seventh grade, taking the highest level of math offered and excelling in science, yet thoroughly convinced that science and math were not for me. I certainly didn’t consider pursuing a career in either discipline. It seemed to me that STEM careers were reserved for those with inherent scientific intelligence, a quality I felt I didn’t possess.
This feeling continued throughout high school. Every time I squeaked out of a math or science test with a good grade I chalked it up to my rigorous study habits, but when I failed to find an answer on a problem set or got a test back with one too many red marks it was further proof that I just didn’t have a “STEM brain.” By the time I made it out of second-year calculus I was ready to bid adieu to high-level math and hopefully transition away from STEM classes in college.
The conviction I held that told me I didn’t belong in STEM, that I wasn’t born with a “STEM brain”, is not a viewpoint unique to me. In their paper “Why Do Women Opt Out? Sense of Belonging and Women’s Representation in Mathematics,” Good et. al. investigate the sex differences that lead women to disproportionately drop out of mathematics. Their conclusion states that “students’ perceptions of 2 factors in their math environment—the message that math ability is a fixed trait and the stereotype that women have less of this ability than men—[work] together to erode women’s, but not men’s, sense of belonging in math” (Good et al, 700). When it comes to math and science, girls underestimate their own abilities and often doubt their belonging in the field as a whole.
What can be done to heighten girls’ sense of belonging in typically male-dominated fields? Promisingly, Good et al. found that when women were given the message that mathematical ability could be acquired and was not an inherent trait, they maintained a higher sense of belonging in the field and were more likely to pursue a career involving math. Furthermore, researchers have found that when girls have access to female mentors and/or role models in female-sparse fields, the girls are more likely to be optimistic about such a career for themselves (Lips).
Fortunately, before I completely swore off math and science I began to see indicators that gave me more confidence in my ability to excel in those fields. Around the time I was finishing high school I started noticing many women in climate science who inspired me, mostly by virtue of being really, really cool and passionate about their work. My concern for the environment, coupled with a newfound sense of inclusion in the field, made me more open to a STEM-focused major than ever before. When I came to Stanford and saw clusters of women at the Stanford Earth meet-and-greet, eager to tell me about the experiences in the field and the research they had pursued, I was ecstatic. I remember thinking, these women are so passionate and capable. Why shouldn’t I do that? This shift in my mindset helped me overcome the notion that I need to be brilliant in order to pursue environmental science, or that I lack some necessary “smart” gene required of all scientists. And to those six year-old girls, I want to say yes, you are capable, passionate, and smart enough.
Cimpian, Andrei, and Sarah-Jane Leslie. "Why Young Girls Don't Think They Are Smart Enough." The New York Times, 26 Jan. 2017.
Good, Catherine, et al. “Why Do Women Opt Out? Sense of Belonging and Women’s Representation in Mathematics” (2012). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Johnson, Paula Denise, "Girls and Science: A Qualitative Study on Factors Related to Success and Failure in Science" (2004). Dissertations. Paper 1114.
Lips, Hilary M. “The Gender Gap in Possible Selves: Divergence of Academic Self-Views Among High School and University Students” (2004). Sex Roles.
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