Why gender stereotypes can disempower female STEM students

A team of research fellows at National Research University Higher School of Economics have conducted a study to examine why gender stereotypes can disempower female STEM students.

The study by Natalia Maloshonok and Irina Shcheglova, research fellows at National Research University Higher School of Economics, suggests that these gender stereotypes can lead to higher dropout rates for female STEM students.

According to researchers, more than one in three young women have been led to believe in men’s superior mathematical ability. The team propose that gender imbalance starts in secondary school and further increases in university, with few female undergraduates choosing STEM majors. The final stage of this negative selection occurs in the workplace.

According to the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, females account for 26% of students in engineering and technology undergraduate courses, 27% of students in computer and information sciences courses, 31% of mathematics and mechanics, and, 32% in physics and astronomy. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 35% of graduates in STEM are female.

Understanding gender disparity in STEM

According to their report, published in Monitoring of Public Opinion: Economic and Social Changes Journal, this imbalance could largely be due to gender stereotypes. To test their hypothesis, Maloshonok and Shcheglova analysed data from the Study of Undergraduate Performance (SUPER-test), an international comparative study of engineering students’ educational achievement carried out by HSE in cooperation with Stanford University and a myriad of other research organisations.

In the report, Maloshonok and Shcheglova wrote: ‘Moving towards gender parity in engineering, computer and mathematical sciences is essential in an attempt to enhance student learning in STEM fields. As the previous studies suggest, gender segregation is not only revealed through a smaller number of female students choosing to receive a technical education but also through the fact that female students are more likely not to complete these educational programs.’

Although female undergraduates in STEM majors perform better academically than their male counterparts, gender stereotypes seem to discourage the continuation of female STEM students. Not only do stereotypes affect young women’s choices in STEM careers, but they can also undermine female students’ confidence in their ability to compete successfully with men.

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