About the gender stereotypes in STEM education in Europe

About the gender stereotypes in STEM education in Europe

Often, stereotypes about girls and STEM (or girls in STEM) are what hold girls back from pursuing a career in STEM or from choosing STEM subjects in school. Discover the three main gender stereotypes identified by the Gender4STEM Teaching Assistant in STEM education in Europe.


Can’t women belong to STEM?

Girls pursuing STEM careers can be seen as a threat to the traditional picture of a caring woman. They are sometimes afraid to be less feminine if they pursue their interest in STEM. Girls also fear they might not be treated equally in STEM and have to make more effort to achieve the same goals as men. Moreover, girls lack role models in STEM fields: there are hardly any female scientists shown in science books.

Especially in Southern European cultures such as Italy, Romania and Croatia, girls pursuing STEM careers can be seen as a threat to the traditional picture of caring women and men working hard jobs to provide for their families. In Romania, centuries-old mentalities place all domestic responsibilities with women. In Italy, this goes together with insufficient offer of childcare services, as well as support for the elderly: the burden of caring for parents and children is mainly left to women, which makes it almost impossible for them to pursue a career (in STEM). In Southern European cultures, there is often little support from parents and mothers to girls who consider making the ‘nontraditional’ choice of pursuing a career in STEM. In France especially in lower income families, it takes girls more effort to leave traditional roles and choose STEM. This stereotype is also illustrated in the Netherlands where girls are sometimes afraid to be less feminine if they pursue their STEM interests. In Italy, gender equality is viewed as a threat to the ‘traditional’ family, which could even ‘instigate’ youngsters to become homosexuals. Political issues, especially from the conservative and religious wing, are negatively gender-biased.

Together with this, Italian, Romanian and Croatian women fear that they would be not equally treated in STEM and that they would have to make more effort to get the same goal as men.

Girls lack role models in STEM fields. This seems to be true for all of Europe. It is hard for girls to imagine that they could follow a career in STEM, when there are no females around them to show them that this is indeed possible for a woman. Since girls model themselves on other women, they never learn what they can achieve with STEM skills. A Microsoft study (2017) conducted across 12 different European countries reveals that the main reason influencing interest in STEM in these European countries is role models. This effect is reinforced by the science content in teaching curricula which is mainly tailored to boys: there are hardly any female scientists shown in science books. Even worse, sometimes women are shown in stereotypical roles, as a caregiver mainly occupied with love and family. These concerns are mainly voiced by French girls, while for example in the Netherlands, there is a trend towards more gender-sensitive books, with female construction workers and male nurses.

Is STEM nerdy, boring and dirty and thus not interesting for girls?

Girls actually have no realistic image of STEM. Beyond the lack of role models, they do not know which professions, companies and working environments are part of STEM nowadays, and what they could achieve with STEM skills.

Girls have no realistic image of STEM. Due to the lack of role models, girls mostly have no real life examples of what they could achieve with STEM skills. They do not know which professions, companies and working environments are actually part of STEM nowadays and that a job in STEM can entail creativity, lots of contact with co-workers (and travelling) and producing societally relevant products. As an example, this came up during the WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) colloquium held in Luxemburg in 2017: “We first of all need to bring science and research closer to society by making it part of our culture and talking a lot about it.” By facilitating girls’ contact with technical companies and female professionals, they should get a more realistic image of STEM professions.

Do girls have talent for STEM?

At school, there is the wide (unconscious) belief among teachers and students that girls are more hard-working, but have less talent at STEM, while boys are lazy, but more talented at STEM. There is also the belief that languages can be learnt (which is why girls are supposed to be better at languages) while STEM asks for innate talent (which is why boys are supposedly better at STEM) (Microsoft, 2017).

The general image that boys and girls are innately different is a difficult one. It develops into the stereotype that girls are less suitable for STEM and more talented at humanities, arts and caring professions, while boys are talented at STEM, but usually do not pursue humanities.

It has been shown that from a very young age, boys and girls are talked to differently (‘you are a nice girl’ vs. ‘you are a tough/brave boy’; Elliot, 2010) and different toys/activities are marketed to them (Elliot, 2010). This is illustrated by a clever study conducted by the BBC (2017) in which girls are dressed as boys and boys wear girls’ clothes. Adults who were asked to play with these children gave the ‘girls’ significantly “softer” toys like dolls and stuffed animals while ‘boys’ were asked to play with “hard” toys such as cars and Lego. Girls miss a chance to develop an interest for and abilities for STEM, if they are not exposed to toys promoting spatial awareness, persistence and other technical skills.

This leads to unconscious biases that are mirrored in gender-biased hiring and the publicity of the digital sector (computers are for boys).

In class, boys are more likely to be asked to solve new problems, while girls are asked factual questions (Skelton, Francis, & Smulyan, 2006). At home, girls are also helped with their maths homework more often, even without asking for help (Bhanot & Jovanovic, 2005). Because boys and girls are judged by different standards, in the end they are guided to study different subjects and do diffrent jobs, even when they have the same grades.

It is then no wonder that girls become less and less confident in their STEM skills and are afraid of failing at STEM. This might lead to girls answering fewer questions in class and participating less in experiments (and letting boys take over). This might work as a downward spiral.

BBC (2017). Gender specific toys: Do you stereotype children? http://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-40936719/gender-specific-toys-do-youstereotype-children 

Bhanot, R., & Jovanovic, J. (2005). Do Parents’ Academic Gender Stereotypes Influence Whether They Intrude on their Children’s Homework? Sex Roles, 52(9–10), 597–607. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-3728-4

Eliot, L. (2010). Pink brain, blue brain. Oneworld Publications.

Microsoft (2017). Why Europe’s girls aren’t studying STEM. White paper.

Tomasetto, C., Mirisola, A., Galdi, S., & Cadinu, M. (2015). Parents’ math–gender stereotypes, children’s self-perception of ability, and children’s appraisal of parents’evaluations in 6-yearolds. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 42, 186–198. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2015.06.007



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