Do you remember when you decided what to study in college, or picked a career? Perhaps it was in high school, or maybe you still haven’t figured it out. You probably don’t think it was at the age of 6 or 7, but a recent study showed that from a very young age, societal gender stereotypes strongly affect the career aspirations of boys and girls.
The impact on girls is particularly negative. Girls are less likely to think their own gender is “really, really smart” and thus their interests move away from STEM subjects that are generally associated with being “brilliant.” In fact, statistics show that under 20 percent of women received bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science.
Children ages 5 to 7 participated in the study, showing us that the influence of gender stereotypes on career paths does not just exist in the early stages of adulthood when students are in college, but rather it starts in early childhood, ages at which children are most impressionable.
“Traditionally, an American family consists of a hard-working father, a stay-at-home mother, and a few adorable children,” said UT chemistry professor Kate Biberdorf. “From a very early age, students are given this image as a ‘successful’ family and they are encouraged to pursue this type of family.”
While in some ways society is moving away from this, similar ideas — that women should stay home with the kids rather than men, or that they should prioritize family over career — still exist that should be addressed by pushing young girls to pursue their interests, learn and ask questions. Moreover, programs such as Girl Day at UT should be implemented to expose young girls to STEM subjects, which can have huge benefits to their futures.
“Girl Day and similar programs provide girls the opportunity to experience the engineering design process, gain confidence in their problem solving skills, be surrounded by other girls who enjoy math and science and be exposed to female STEM role models,” said Tricia Berry, director of the Women in Engineering Program at UT, which organizes Girl Day. “All of these factors contribute to girls’ interest and persistence in STEM, (and) these types of opportunities ensure girls can see the possibilities of a STEM career for themselves.”
In addition, we must take women’s intelligence more seriously, especially now when sexism emanates from the highest level of government. President Donald Trump has relentlessly demeaned women throughout his campaign, escalating societal gender stereotypes that imply their looks and physical features are the most important thing about them.
“Girls are complimented on their appearance and the focus stays on appearance, (while) boys may be complimented on appearance and then the focus moves to physical or academic skills,” said Berry. “Kids pick up on these things at early ages and internalize what is important and how they are valued.”
If this misogynistic rhetoric continues, girls’ self-confidence will continue to diminish, especially in regards to their intelligence. We must not just provide access to more opportunities for young girls, but also encourage them to explore subjects such as engineering and chemistry to foster their interests and allow them to see their potential. Instead of implying that girls have a fixed number of paths they can choose from, they should know they can do anything they set their minds to.
Agha is a public relations junior from Karachi, Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @alinaagha96.