The problem starts the moment we are born. Girls and boys are treated differently. Boys are often encouraged to be more independent, to take risks, to show leadership. Girls are often discouraged from risk-taking and called bossy when trying to lead. If we want true gender equality, we need to start with how we talk and behave towards the smallest of us.
Personal belief in gender stereotypes, as to who should do what reaches peak rigidity already at around five years of age. This is sad news as even before we get to school, we are already biased and have a clear idea about what type of work is for boys and what for girls. The environment is then reinforcing this bias as we watch for signs that support our view of the world. The behavior we encourage in toddlers has an impact on what sort of people they become.
It starts early and is mostly unintentional. Melissa W. Clearfield and Nareer M. Nelson analyzed mothers’ speech patterns and play behavior with six, nine, and fourteen-year-old sons and daughters. There were no differences identified in the children’s behavior. However, there were apparent differences in the way mothers acted. Mothers engaged in more conversation with daughters, while mothers of sons made more comments and instructions rather than conversation. They interacted more with their daughters than with their sons of all ages. In short, the study demonstrated that mothers transmit different messages to their male and female infants, both through language and interaction. This may then lead to different ways of how girls and boys develop.
Girls and math
Later on in school, stereotypes the kids believe in impact how they perform specific tasks. Studies have shown that while girls are generally as good at math as boys, if not better, the moment they are being reminded of the stereotype that “girls are not good at math,” their performance worsens. This can be done by as little as asking their gender before the math test. In a study with grown-up women, a reminder of the stereotype led to more negative thoughts about their abilities that then reflected in worse performance on the test, compared to the group of women that were not conditioned the same way. In fact, a study showed that so-called stereotype threat has the power to dumb down anyone. Researchers ran a test when selecting white men who were good at math and conditioning them that they are not as good as Asian men who are stereotypically seen as excellent at math. The performance of the white men then indeed worsened.
Girls in Technology
The same applies to why so few girls enter technical fields of study. No wonder there are so few women in IT when as small girls, they are being reminded of the ridiculous stereotype that technical stuff is not for them.
This stereotype is then bolstered in schools. Even small things like decorating the environment can impact the decision-making of the students. In one study, changing objects in the classroom from those seen as stereotypical of computer science like Star Trek or Star Wars posters and video games to more neutral ones like posters of nature was enough to boost girls’ interest in computer science to the same level as boys’.
Even well-meant words can be harmful. A study by Eleanor K. Chestnut, Marianna Y. Zhang, and Ellen M. Markman showed how harmful it is to use the statements like “Girls are as good as boys at math.” Researchers proved that it leads to the automatic assumption that boys don’t have to work as hard as girls to be good at math, that they are naturally better. Much better is to use the statement “Girls and boys are equally good at math,” which is genuinely gender-neutral, doesn’t assume superiority, and doesn’t lead to stereotyping.
Role models matter
Role models matter a lot. And they matter for getting more women into technical roles. Years ago, I was at a conference where one of the speakers suggested that parents are responsible for the lack of women in technology. He also noted the failure of technology companies to showcase role models for little girls. If the public’s general perception is that being in IT means you are a nerdy, bespectacled man in an old T-shirt, sitting in a dark room avoiding other people, and typing on a computer all day long, no wonder that parents question whether they want that type of future for their daughters. The girls then adopt the stance of their parents, especially since it is reinforced by the culture, television, social media, and schools. Difficult to get girls excited about technology if we don’t show them role models to follow.
Kristin Shutts, Mahzarin R. Banaji, and Elizabeth S. Spelke set out to find how children form their preferences and whether social categories apply even to little kids. Researchers asked three-year-old children to choose between objects endorsed by unfamiliar people of different genders, races, and ages. They introduced the task by saying, “Today I am going to show you a bunch of new toys, foods, games, and clothing, and ask you which things you might like to try. You’ve never seen any of these things before, so I’m going to let you see what other kids thought about each of the things before you choose.” Then they would show them a picture of the object and play a recording in a child’s voice, making a statement like “My name is Mary. I love playing with spoodle. Spoodle is my favorite thing to play with.” or “My name is Kevin. I love playing with blicket. Blicket is my favorite thing to play with.” Then the researchers gave the children a choice between a sticker depicting blickets and spoodles and asked them whether they would prefer to play with a spoodle like Mary or a blicket like Kevin.
The children demonstrated a preference for objects endorsed by children of their own gender and age. More importantly, the kids could not answer the question “why” they selected a particular object. When asked why they choose blicket or spoodle, the most frequent answer was “I don’t know,” followed by “Because I like this one.” The implication is that gender and age categories are present in our decision-making processes from an early age and influence our life choices heavily without us being aware of it.
Role models at school
Studies showed how gender match between a teacher and the students impact their learning. Thomas Dee of Swarthmore College examined a sample of 25,000 students in the United States. He discovered that among the thirteen-year-olds, girls are better than boys at reading. However, a third of the reading gap between boys and girls was eliminated if the teacher was male. Boys’ performance improved, while girls’ performance declined. Boys saw a male role model teaching English and had a motivation to be better. When a woman taught a class, boys were more likely to be seen as disruptive. When a man taught a class, girls were more likely to say that they didn’t look forward to the class or that it wasn’t important for their future. This was most obvious in science subjects where female teachers are more effective in inspiring girls’ engagement. Simply put, boys learn more from men; girls learn more from women. Role models of the same gender matter.
What can you do?
To have more women in IT, we need to give them more female role models to follow. This means giving more women a chance to succeed in technology so they can show their little girls a potential future. Getting more women into technology will take time but start today by hiring future role models. If a little girl sees that her mom works as a software developer, the chances are that she will see technical stuff as attractive.
We also need to stop the ridiculous notion that math and technical subjects are not for girls. Show them from an early age that boys and girls are equally good and create an environment where girls get excited about technical topics. If a little girl sees that her friends are learning to program, she will want to try it too. And she will be good at it.
If people assume that a particular underrepresented group is not suitable for some roles, members of that group will invest less time reaching these roles. That, in turn, increases the perception they are not suitable. Break the cycle.
Do you agree? What are your thoughts on the topic? Why do you think there are so few women in technology? What can be done to change that? Do you see enough female role models in technical fields?
Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com
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