Battle of the sexes in science hurts girls -- and boys, too

Battle of the sexes in science hurts girls -- and boys, too
Gender bias plays role in diminishing scientific aspirations for middle schoolers, study finds

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In this file photo, Sarah Al-shdifat teaches science at Goodrich Middle School. A new Nebraska study found that middle-school boys who believed males are innately better at science also were less likely to say they could be scientists themselves.

What’s the harm in the clichéd notion that boys are better at science than girls? The obvious answer is that it can detract from girls’ interest and mastery of science.

But new research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows this concept harms boys, too.

The study, published by Husker sociologist Patricia Wonch Hill, found that middle-school boys who believed males are innately better at science also were less likely to say they could be scientists themselves.

“We thought we’d find, in the boys, a stereotype lift,” Wonch Hill said. “We thought the thinking would be, ‘If boys are good at science, and I’m a boy, I must be good at science.’”

Instead, Wonch Hill said, the findings demonstrate that such a gender bias not only contributes to middle school girls losing interest in science, but boys as well.

This is a big problem, she said, because women in science, technology, engineering and math – often referred to as STEM – are in the minority, and it is harder to recruit all students into these fields.

Researchers surveyed 529 students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at a middle school in Nebraska for this study. The new research is part of a university project to investigate why women are less likely to pursue STEM careers. Previously, researchers found that scientific curiosity drops off among females during adolescence because of gender norms, stereotypes and friendships.

“The implications of these findings are that we need to work to get rid of this cultural stereotype in the United States, and it really is specific to certain places and times,” said Wonch Hill, research assistant professor of sociology at Nebraska. “It’s not only harmful to young girls, but this shows it can be bad for boys, too.”

The best defense against these stereotypes is to be aware and to take steps to counter them, Wonch Hill said.

“Simple things can make a difference, like making sure materials in classrooms are diverse and inclusive,” she said.

The study also found that between sixth and eighth grades, students appear to shift their thinking in terms of gender biases. About a quarter of sixth-grade girls said they believed girls were better at science. But in eighth grade that number flipped, showing 25 percent of girls thought boys were better at science.

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Patricia Wonch Hill

The silver lining, the researcher said, is that about two-thirds of all students surveyed said there was no difference between boys and girls.

Wonch Hill said the study opens up new lines of research into why gender biases also hurt boys. She speculated that the answer will be found in the gender norms that are especially pronounced in middle school.

“These are highly gendered environments,” she said. “Everything about middle school heightens that.”

The study was published in the journal Social Sciences and was co-authored by Nebraska researchers Julia McQuillan, Amy Spiegel, G. Robin Gauthier and Judy Diamond. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health (R25OD01506).