“I need a calculator even for 2+2. I’m not perfect, I’m pretty.” You could write an entire thesis about that sentence. Sadly, the young woman who tweeted it, has close to 600,000 followers. Even more disheartening, this is merely one of a multitude of similarly negative messages about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) transmitted by girls and young women in Latin America.
In a forthcoming IDB study, in partnership with Alto Data Analytics we explore the tone of the STEM discourse and the extent of gender-based stereotypes amongst Latin American social media users. Based on a big data analysis of all STEM-related social media messages transmitted during a six-week period in Brazil and all the region’s Spanish speaking countries, we find that gender stereotypes are prevalent.
Astonishingly, the negative stereotypes about females are often transmitted by girls and young women themselves. They are more likely than male social media users to post and feel affinity to posts that promote negative views of STEM subjects. This tendency is particularly pronounced in mathematics, where 3/4 of all self-deprecating mathematics posts are done by girls and young women. We conclude that it is socially acceptable for Latin American girls and young women to state that they are ‘bad at mathematics.’
It’s unlikely that you would hear someone say that they cannot read. Why is it then that it’s so acceptable for girls to admit publicly that they are terrible at mathematics?
Their lack of confidence in STEM subjects may in part be a result of repeated exposure to stereotypical gender roles in STEM fields, which has been shown to affect children’s and youth’s behaviors and sense of belonging in STEM subjects. For today’s youth, an important part of this exposure takes place in social media. We found that a whopping 1/3 of students’ social media shares about women and girls in STEM are sexist.
A subtler, but equally troubling tendency is an overrepresentation of male lead researchers and scientists in social media images and mentions of STEM-based discoveries and innovations. For every share that attributes a discovery to a female scientist, there are six shares that credit a male scientist for a discovery. Similarly, youth are six times as likely to see a male than a female scientist in social media image shares. And, when they do see STEM women in social media images, four times out of five the woman will be portrayed as a research assistant. Clearly, Latin American girls and young women are unlikely to find the STEM role models they need on social media.
The lack of female STEM role models and prevalence of negative stereotypes, likely transcends social media to play a role in the region’s sharp gender differences in education outcomes and careers choices. Mathematics and Science gender learning gaps are pronounced among Latin American 15-year-olds on the 2015 regional standardized PISA test. In higher education, one out of every ten female graduates chooses a STEM major, whereas male graduates choose such degrees at approximately three times that rate. Once they enter the labor market, only one of every three Latin American STEM employees is female. The data speaks for itself and paints a picture that is neither perfect, nor pretty.