Why are adolescent girls less interested in science than boys?

Past research has shown boys' and girls' interest in the sciences is practically even up until adolescence. Gender roles, biases, and peer-to-peer interactions dissuade teenage girls from pursuing careers in STEM. (Photo courtesy of UNL)
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April 11, 2017 - 6:45am

A new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sets out to answer the question. It turns out it has a lot to do with the company they keep. NET News spoke with UNL sociologist and co-author of the study, Patricia Wonch Hill.


NET NEWS: So what is it about this time in a girl’s life that sways her away from an interest in science?

WONCH HILL: One of them is just a transition to middle school. That is a completely different sort of institution and setting than elementary school. So just adjusting to that. There's also a lot of cognitive and physical changes that are happening for kids at this stage. If you remember what it was like as a middle schooler, we often remember that as a difficult time in our lives and I think the reason for that is because we're going through all of these transitions physically, mentally, and emotionally and trying to figure out our place in the world. This is a point in time when adolescents are trying on identities and trying to figure out what's a good fit for them.

NET NEWS: I understand things likes gender roles or stereotypes getting in the way, but something you studied was friendship. Tell us a bit more about that if you can.

WONCH HILL: It is around this time in preadolescence when peers take on a greater role as far as a youth figuring out who they are. What their friends think really matters a lot and so we were interested in looking at how friendship networks work in middle school and how those might support or maybe create barriers to girls continuing in science. Basically, what we found is that boys were more uncertain whether their friends who were girls or friends who were boys were science kinds of people, but they were more likely to say that their friends who were girls were not science kinds of people. In fact, we found something very similar among the girls who are much less likely to say their friends who are girls are science kinds of people. We thought that was really interesting because your friends sort of reinforce who you are.

NET NEWS: Do we need know why they perceive boys to a better fit for science?

WONCH HILL: There are some studies that go back 10, 20, 30 years where we ask youth to draw a scientist. When we do this what we find is that youth are more likely to draw someone who is a male, white, in a lab coat, and looks a lot like (Albert) Einstein. So there is this a general sort of cultural bias in the United States that scientists tend to be men who are white and so we think that might be playing into whether they see their friends as scientists, especially their friends who are girls or might not fit that sort of archetype.

NET NEWS: When I think of adolescence, I also think of puberty. It’s obviously a major change in a young person’s life. How does that factor in to this?

WONCH HILL: Young children obviously live gendered lives in the sense they have preferences for dresses, or pink or blue, and so that happens at a young age. But what happens during adolescence, with the changing of bodies during puberty, suddenly there's a sort of sexuality element that comes into play. If girls or boys perceive that being attractive or being feminine is in some way in conflict with being a science kind of person, than puberty itself might impact whether or not girls see themselves that way. Also because of puberty, they tend to receive more messages about their looks and so this includes sexism and sexual harassment which makes that feminine identity more salient. It also includes academic sexism. There are studies that show a lot of girls, starting in adolescence, began to experience that sort of gendered harassment and or bias. I think that might play an impact on why girls who are actually very good at science might think that, "Even though I'm good at it, it's just not for me."

NET NEWS: There is such a push in this country right now to gets kids involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). And particularly with girls. Something like this seems like a pretty big social obstacle to that.

WONCH HILL: I think teachers can play a role and parents can play a role in letting girls know STEM fields are something that are a really great opportunity for them. STEM jobs actually pay a lot more than non-STEM jobs. In some ways this could close the gender gap in pay. I think the role that parents can play is reaffirming. I think science is relevant to everything. If we can make those connections so that students realize these skills that they're learning in science class aren't just to perform science, they're actually relevant to solving critical problems, that will really help people in the future.

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