Misconceptions and stereotypes may discourage girls from studying STEM, study finds

Members of The Girls of Steel, an all-girls robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Gender imbalance is a tale as old as the tech industry itself. Across the industry, women make up just 30 percent of the workforce and, at many companies, the percentage of women in technical roles is in the teens or lower.

But as tech’s diversity problem becomes more and more visible, so do its causes.

A study conducted by Microsoft, released Tuesday, found that girls and young women in the U.S. are deterred from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from an early age. Often, that deterrence comes from misconceptions and stereotypes about STEM that make girls feel those careers just aren’t “for” them.

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The study, which surveyed more than 6,000 women and girls from 10 to 30 years old, also identified several key ways that girls can be encouraged to pursue STEM, including attending STEM clubs and helping girls find role models in STEM fields.

Overall, the study found that interest in STEM — and specifically coding — dropped from middle school onward. The numbers about coding are particularly interesting — 32 percent of middle school girls said they think jobs involving coding would be a good fit for them, but by the time women have graduated high school, only 27 percent say the same thing. That decline likely has many causes, but several were apparent from the data.

One clear reason is misconceptions about what STEM jobs are actually like.

The study found that 72 percent of girls say it’s important for them to have a job that directly helps the world and 91 percent describe themselves as creative — but just 37 percent said they thought STEM jobs could be creative or help the world. The stereotype of STEM jobs being uncreative and low-impact certainly isn’t accurate, as the study attests.

The way girls view themselves is also a contributor — 50 percent of girls surveyed saw themselves as one of the hardest workers in their STEM classes, but only 37 percent saw themselves as one of the smartest students. That disconnect points to a long-running stereotype that girls and women are naturally less smart when it comes to STEM fields, a view not supported by scientific research.

But whether or not they are true, these stereotypes are having an impact on girls and their decision on which career to choose. Once women arrive in STEM workplaces, those stereotypes persist, the study found. Of women working in STEM fields, 49 percent said they have experienced stereotypes as women in the field. In the technology industry, that number was 57 percent.

It’s important to change those stereotypes to encourage more girls and women to join — and remain in — STEM fields, the study said.

Another important way to do that: Give girls positive role models.

The study found that knowing a woman in STEM made girls more likely to understand the relevancy of STEM, know how to pursue a STEM career and feel powerful in doing so. (Microsoft Image)

Girls who know a woman in STEM were far more likely to say they understand the relevance of STEM, know how to pursue a STEM career and feel powerful in pursuing a STEM career. A similar bump was seen among girls whose parents and/or teachers talk to them about STEM and encourage them to pursue interests in those fields.

Encouraging girls to attend STEM clubs can also help them feel more prepared to pursue a STEM career, the study found.

Girls who live in rural communities or small towns could especially use a boost — they were noticeably less likely than urban or suburban girls to express interest in pursuing a STEM career and, on average, were less likely to take part in STEM clubs or activities.

See more findings from the study in the interactive graphic below: