Be discreet, smile more, soccer is for boys, play with this doll, don’t raise your voice, be a lady, eat a salad, girls are better at reading. Although women in Latin America and the Caribbean have advanced a lot in the past quarter century – gaining equal access to schooling and increasing their participation in politics and the labor market – kids are still raised with stereotypes about what a girl should be and do.
Research has shown that children pick up on cultural stereotypes at a very young age. Some of those stereotypes make women appear as not equally capable of performing well in science fields as men. Research from the United States, show that these stereotypes come from many sources, home, school, the media, and often, it’s the adults who reinforce them with subtle messages as the ones mentioned earlier.
This kind of self-limiting stereotypes and beliefs has been shown to affect a girl’s educational path and future career choices. Even discouraging them from pursuing careers of prestige that are usually dominated by men because they are valued for their brilliance.
Girls must be able to pursue fields that spark their curiosity, which would make their competencies develop and grow over time. To do this, parents and teachers must not only expose them to female success stories and positive role models, but also change the narrative about intelligence and STEAM abilities being a male quality. Girls are equally as capable as boys to excel in those fields.
Until five years of age, most children see the world and their abilities to navigate it similarly, regardless of gender. But, by six or seven girls start to believe that they are not smart enough to engage in certain activities, specifically mathematics.
Generally, girls experience more math anxiety than boys, which influences test performance and eventually stifles propensity to participate in STEAM professions. Here’s where the interaction between teachers, care-takers and students plays an important role. They must not reinforce stereotypes that boys are better at STEAM than girls. They socialization must be equal for both in order not to negatively influence identity formation.
We believe that by exposing children to positive female role models gender stereotypes about STEAM can be diminished and ultimately girl’s performance and learnings in math during the school years can improve which would make them more likely to pursue careers in engineering, programming or mathematics that are better paid in the labor markets.
The narrative of girls being “less than boys” starts early. The environment tells them, even if subtly, that they are not capable of doing certain things that boys can, which in the end limits them. As educators, parents and policy makers, we must question ourselves if we are being part of the problem, even unintentionally. How can we change it? What other things can we do to reduce gender stereotypes about STEAM fields?
We could begin by limiting the exposure to negative stereotypes and encouraging girls to challenge them. Additionally, strengthening social and emotional learning could also help with building confidence and how to deal with negative emotions. Promoting effort and hard work as the key to achievement and success, contributes to building confidence and competence. Lastly, stimulating children’s imagination encourages curiosity and innovation.
This is a paradigm that society as a whole should aim to solve, and all of us, from our different positions have to contribute. We must show girls that they can do anything, that their dreams and hopes is something that they can achieve. What are you doing?