New Study Shows Reason for Decline in Interest in STEM for Girls

A lot of what we talk about here on the blog is the lack of girls pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We are always excited to see new research or studies on the subject especially when they help pinpoint the answer as to exactly why girl’s interests in STEM fields seem to drop off at a certain age. A new study has been published by titled, Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls’ STEM Attitudes & Participation?.

The study takes a look past some of the more commonly discussed obstacles holding girls back from pursuits in STEM such as the lack of female role models and the sometimes unwelcoming classroom environment for girls in STEM and focuses on the very basic gender internalization that goes on for most girls when they begin to reach the tween years and beyond.

The study explains that by the 8th grade only half as many girls are interested in STEM, which just happens to be around the same age girls begin to enter that period of “gender intensification” when they begin to suddenly find themselves trying to identify with gender roles. According to the study this is the age when girls begin to disassociate being smart with being pretty and start believing that they cannot be both.

“Girls are caught in a “double conformity” bind, in which they must opt out of femininity or opt out of STEM" the study claims.

Girls and focus groups who were interviewed for the study were asked if they could be feminine, smart and popular with boys, and their response was “Yes, but not in junior high!” As girls become more interested in boys they think they have to “dumb it down then. When faced with the research that girls start losing interest in math and science in the third grade the same girls responded with the following,

  • “[This is when] girls start giving up [on math].”
  • “It’s when they start noticing the boys.” (All participants agree.)
  • “[This is when they] start thinking ‘I can’t be pretty.’
  • “Girls focus more on ‘oh, he wants me to be pretty.’”

The same girls also claimed that by Junior High the time spent on their appearance (Sometimes waking up at 4AM to get ready for school) leaves little time for schoolwork.

One of the more fascinating things pointed out in the study is the fact that African-American and working class White girls are more apt to resist narrow, traditional ideas of feminine beauty better than their middle-class White peers.

These are just the highlights to the thought provoking study, you can find the study in it’s entirety on the website.

This study really got me thinking about my own daughter, who will be starting the first grade in the fall. She is still in the magical age where a lot of these gender roles have yet to sink in. What can I be doing now to help navigate the change that research says I may start to see in another year or two? Well based on this study, I believe a lot of it has to do with a girl’s ability to relate to and interact with boys.

As a preschooler and kindergartner, some of my daughter’s closest friends have been boys. There is something about her that has allowed even some of the tougher boys in her classes to open up to her and welcome her into their “boy” world, allowing her to sometimes be the only girl invited to an all boy birthday party.

I hope, that these relationships that have seemed basically healthy and even a little cute, might actually end be an invaluable tool in fighting back against gender stereotypes, as she gets a little older. If a young girl has the ability to relate to boys on a normal friendly level as well as she is able to relate to girls, maybe she’ll be less apt to be intimidated or concerned about being pretty versus being smart and will just be able to focus on being herself.

What are your thoughts? Do you have ideas as to how we can handle the stereotype that girls can’t be pretty AND smart?

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