University of Wisconsin–Madison

Culture-Tied Gender Norms in STEM Education

Girlhood is a relatively recent term-word in the English language, coming into common use only in the 1700’s. Author Reid-Walsh notes that our first record of it’s use was in as a descriptor for the period in a young woman’s life of “virtuous adolescence”. Especially through a modern lens, it is easy to recognize how this both expects and dictates some set of standards for this group of people.

In the texts we have read thus far in the semester, there is a common trend that is evident both in texts by and about white perspectives on being young and female historically and Native American perspectives on the expectations white society had for them. In Zitkaka Sa’s accounts of her time in Quaker schools, she details how the responsibilities of the household, humbleness and meekness, and an acceptance of this role in society.

A recent article I came across describes that recent research into teaching methods for young children of STEM subjects discovered that in teaching young girls, using phrases like “let’s do science” rather than “being scientists” encouraged more girls to engage with and succeed with STEM subjects at this early level. Researchers noted that the difference between these very similar phrases is that “being scientists” inserts a reference to an identity, of science figures that the children may be aware of. In all young children, this image is likely in our current time of male, white, old figures who are not the role models that in all other aspects of their lives, young girls will be being taught to being examples of who they should and can be. The author of this study Marjorie Rhodes explains that, “The roots of gender disparities in science achievement take hold in early childhood, … (and) This research identifies an element of children’s environments that could be targeted to reduce early gender differences in science behavior among young children.”

Cultural representations and judgments on identity are extremely influential in children’s development of self-image, self-esteem, and social standing in their societies. Children, today as they always have been, are influenced by how they see society talk, critique, and include or exclude people they see as themselves.

4 thoughts on “Culture-Tied Gender Norms in STEM Education”

  1. Thanks for sharing this article, Natalie, and your thoughts! I think this is very interesting to think about when we consider recent efforts to increase female involvement in the STEM field and in STEM fields of study at an early age up through college. Your post made me wonder and think about how can the image your were talking about as the default of who a scientist “is” change, and how long does this take/what does it take? I wonder how increasing the number of women who are STEM majors and further gaining representation, voices, and respect within the STEM community will change this concept of who a scientist is versus is not. Thanks for your ideas!

  2. What an interesting study! Learning about the findings of the study, it makes sense. When I envision what a scientist looks like, I too, picture an older white male and I am intimidated to go into that field. The change in language is much more encouraging and empowering. It goes to show how important language can be in perpetuating a stereotype and the effect teaching has on young children. Young girls who are spoken to in a specific way may be more or less interested in going into the STEM fields depending on how the subject is approached. I like how you tied this to the influence that culture has on children’s development and talked about Zitkaka Sa’s personal story. It makes me realize important our actions are on the development of young girls and how they will identify themselves in such a malleable time period.

  3. From my experience at schools, most of the girls are matured earlier than boys both biologically and mentally, and girls are usually more diligent at school work. Sometimes it is frustrated to see how females being withhold in fields because of outside circumstances, wasting the talents against their wishes. With how progressive it is today, and how studies like this pay more attention in the issue, it is only fair to see more female scientists thrive in the fields if they choose to.

  4. I have always wondered where the idea from children that only men can be scientists still came from in the modern society where we have more female scientists. I find it very interesting that it simply comes from phrases used in children education. I am wondering though, why teachers should even have to use the different gendered phrases of “lets do science” to get girls interested in science. Is it something taught to children before school and education? Is it parent taught or from seeing social aspects of who works in science? From a young girl, I have always been interested in learning and working in science but I believe I got this thought from my mom and how she raised me, not necessarily in school, at least at a young age.

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