For centuries, oppressive policies and deep-rooted prejudices prevented women from entering certain professions such as science and medicine. Today, even though the official barriers to these fields have been removed, there are still relatively few women working in certain roles. A recent study suggests one reason for this is that girls may be reluctant to enter such fields due to a belief that they are less smart than their male peers.

Gender Stereotypes Start Early

According to the study, conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois, New York University, and Princeton University, gender stereotypes can affect children as young as six. Even at this young age, girls see themselves as less brilliant than boys and shy away from activities that they perceive as requiring a high level of intelligence. These harmful stereotypes persist until adulthood and could explain why women are less likely to pursue higher degrees in subjects that are seen as requiring brilliance. This could help to explain why few women hold top positions in science and medicine.

Lack of Confidence Limits Potential

Although women have made huge strides in entering certain areas of science, female mathematicians and physicists are still widely outnumbered. In the face of a stereotypical narrative that says women don’t naturally have as much mathematical ability as men, many girls shy away from taking the most math-intensive courses. So what sets apart the very small number of girls who major in physics, engineering, math or computer science (PEMC)? Confidence. Girls who rate their mathematical abilities highly in 12th grade are the most likely to choose a PEMC major. The problem is that girls in high school consistently underrate their own mathematical skills. In contrast, boys typically overrate them.

The Importance of Encouragement

Parents have a significant role to play in encouraging their daughters to pursue all their interests, including those that are traditionally considered unfeminine. Praising girls when they get good grades can help them feel more secure in their own abilities. Meanwhile, girls who struggle to master certain areas of mathematics and science can benefit from a growth mindset. This term refers to a belief that mathematical aptitude is not a talent that people are born with, but a skill that can be learned through careful study. Girls who believe they can succeed through hard work are much more likely to pursue traditionally male-dominated roles than those who accept the idea that you need intrinsic talent to succeed in competitive fields.

Fighting Back Against Stereotypes

Of course, girls cannot develop an interest in science, technology, or medicine if they are never exposed to those fields while they are growing up. Parents need to provide a range of stimulating toys and activities for their daughters, such as trips to science museums or games that encourage girls to use a scientific approach to problem-solving. It’s also important for girls to see women being doctors, scientists, and business leaders, so they can imagine themselves in those roles. Parents can look into outreach programs that introduce girls to female role models, or encourage them to research female scientists for projects at school. Seeing women succeeding in male-dominated fields gives girls confidence that they can follow the same path.

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