Theories and sources
Terminology, issues and observations for a better understanding of the gender gap in STEM disciplines, and the ways it can be overcome.
Cultural stereotypes are common beliefs expressed through set phrases containing prejudices and consolidated opinions about groups of people. Gender or sexist stereotypes are very common. They may take the form of verbal expressions and proverbs (“Frailty, thy name is woman”), widely held opinions not supported by data (“Women are worse drivers than men”), images depicting conventional scenes as if they were universal (a man reading, a woman ironing).
The term cognitive bias comes from the old French word biais (and earlier from Provençal) and means "oblique" or "inclined".
Cognitive biases are distortions that automatically and unconsciously influence our judgement of reality and our decisions. They may stem from individual experiences that we tend to generalise (a road where we were involved in a collision will always seem to be more dangerous than others), partial information or prejudices. A common bias is the belief that women are better suited to the humanities and men to sciences. When we recognise our particular biases, we can mitigate their effects.
One factor of personal protection capable of combating mathematics-related gender stereotypes is critical thought, and particular open-mindedness; people with a high degree of open-mindedness are intellectually curious, flexible in their behaviour, and not dogmatic in their attitudes and values.
Reflections and theories
It is recommended that female students be invited to put themselves to the test with logical and mathematical tests of various types and degrees of difficulty (for instance, using apps or digital games) to boost their self-confidence in this area. Males have a higher perception of their competence in mathematics that females from a very early age (Else-Quest et al., 2010; Fredericks & Eccles, 2002), in the absence of any real differences in mathematical ability (Herbert & Stipek, 2005). Perception of one’s ability in mathematics can have an impact on mathematical performance (Guo et al., 2015; Trautwein et al., 2012); moreover, perceiving oneself as skilled or unskilled leads to adoption of different goals, either approaching these disciplines (focusing on skill development) or avoiding them (focusing on avoiding a standard of lack of competence), with consequences for the choice of future career.
When planning teaching activities, teachers should take into account the different aspects that can motivate girls in performing a task. In digital games in the STEM disciplines, for example, girls seem to be more attracted by teamwork than by competition, and they appreciate aspects pertaining to narration and pursuit of goals more than boys do (Guo et al., 2020; Lowrie & Jorgensen, 2011).
Social context, interpersonal relations
Along with personal factors, we must take into consideration the girl’s social context, that is, all her interpersonal relationships with significant others around her, and particularly her parents and teachers, who have the greatest impact on the formation and development of academic aptitudes (Jacobs e Eccles 1992; Tiedemann 2000). In their review, Gungerson et al. (2011) demonstrate that gender stereotypes regarding mathematical skills are handed down to girls by their parents (who often demonstrate different expectations regarding mathematical skills in males and females) and teachers beginning in the very first years of schooling, and that they are capable of modelling girls’ attitudes to mathematics, up to the point of weakening their performance and their interest in pursuing a career in the sciences. Teachers not only have different attitudes to girls and boys, confirming to these stereotypes, but may effectively be convinced that boys have a greater propensity for scientific subjects, and therefore provide them with more information.
Lack of information
What’s more, it would seem that girls perceive mathematics as a subject to work on at school, but do not consider the subject very important or relevant to their plans for the future (Gaspard et al., 2015), often due to a lack of appropriate information. While young people choose among a range of possibilities for their future schooling and careers, they often fail to take into consideration the entire range of options objectively available simply because they are unaware of their existence. A young girl with excellent marks in mathematics may not take into consideration the idea of becoming an engineer, for instance, simply because she has only limited knowledge of what an engineer actually does. The girl might view the engineer’s work in a stereotyped way, as focusing solely on mechanical tasks of little or no relevance to the human sciences, when in actual fact many engineers work on direct responses to problems concerning human needs (Eccles, 2005).