Although it’s been shown time and time again that girls are just as competent as boys in math and science, there remains a troubling gender gap in participation in fields like computer science and engineering that is not attributable to differences in career preferences. While higher education initiatives have opened more doors for women to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, new research suggests the seeds of gender inequalities in math and science may be planted much earlier in life.
According to a study conducted at Tel Aviv University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, elementary school teachers may unintentionally discourage girls from pursuing math and sciences later in life.
The research suggests that elementary school teachers have unconscious biases about what girls can and can’t do in math and science, and that these misperceptions might explain why so few girls and women ultimately end up in classes and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Three groups of students, from sixth grade through the end of high school, were asked to take two exams. The exams were then graded by two different people: one who didn’t know their names and one who did. The results showed that girls were scored higher than boys only when their tests were graded by the objective scorer versus the familiar scorer.
Researchers in Tel Aviv continued to follow the students and also noticed a pattern: if a girl was discouraged by an elementary school teacher, they were less likely to register for advanced-level science and math courses. But boys who were encouraged, despite being scored lower, actually began to excel more and more.
However unintended these biases may be, they help to shape women’s career paths for years to come, said study co-author Dr. Edith Sand, an economist at the Bank of Israel and economics professor at Tel Aviv University.
“It isn’t an issue of discrimination but of unconscious discouragement,” Dr. Sand said in a released statement. “This discouragement, however, has implications. The track to computer science and engineering fields, which report some of the highest salaries, tapers off in elementary school.”
Women around the world are still underrepresented in multiple fields, especially ones related to math and science. Although strides have been made in the U.S. to help young girls have a more STEM-focused education, to play with more toys related to science, technology, engineering, and math, and teach them how to code with HTML, there is still more to be done so that they won’t face inequalities in the future.
“If teachers take into account these effects, it could lead to a reduction of the gender gap in achievement, especially in science and math,” said Dr. Sand. “It is clear how important encouragement is for both boys and girls in all their subjects. Teachers play a critical role in lowering and raising the confidence levels of their students, which has serious implications for their futures.”
Of course, parents also have a role to play by encouraging their children, regardless of gender, to pursue all endeavors, and allowing them to freely explore their interests.