There’s plenty of evidence that k-5 children (boys and girls, white and minority) have a pretty strong interest in science and are confident in their science abilities. We also know that STEM careers tend to be dominated by white men. So what is happening in the tween to adult years that results in the gender STEM gap? Well, a lot.
Ignoring the simplistic, and thoroughly debunked answer that girls just don’t like science, there isn’t just one answer to this question. There are many answers that when stacked together paint a rich portrait. While not all explanations apply to all girls, the layers and layers of small barriers and messages form what J Clark Blickenstaff calls the gender filter.
There are so many layers to this filter that I cannot possibly cover them in one blog post (or many, many blog posts). I’m an identity researcher, so I’m going to focus on explanations around identity. Also, because I think that understanding these elements is the key to correcting the gender gap in STEM.
Even though young children express enthusiasm for science and confidence in their science abilities, gendered inculturation into science and math is already at play as early as second grade in the form of implicit bias and gendered associations . Very young children have already absorbed stereotypes about who is more suited to careers in math (and science) and who is “better” at math and science. These early perceptions of suitability play a pivotal role in later decisions.
As I’ve mentioned before, middle school is a very important time for identity development. Kids begin trying out different identities, processing feedback about their identity performances, and making important choices about who they are, and perhaps more importantly, who they are not or cannot be. This is also a crucial time for establishing gender identity, testing out sexuality, and finding social niches. I think most people who’ve been through middle school can remember this time pretty vividly. The pressure to find a place of belonging and avoid social shaming is powerful. When you add to the mix gendered notions of science as being the native realm of (white, cis, hetero, upper middle class) boys - and unflattering stereotypes of scientists as asocial, obsessive, geniuses - a female science identity becomes quite fraught. For most girls, trying on a science identity is a risky proposition that could undermine a more socially desirable identity as feminine and sociable.
In their hugely influential studies of tween and teen youth, science identity ninjas Archer and Dewitt  have described the very circumscribed path toward a female science identity. Basically, girls have two choices in successfully integrating a science identity, neither of which is reasonably attainable by most girls. The first example is the well-rounded, socially adept girl. This is the girl who can do it all, sports, academics, social-status. You know this girl. She’s the one you desperately wanted to hate in high school, but you couldn’t, because she was just so nice and awesome, and her hair was super shiny and always looked great - but like she didn’t even try, she just rolled out of bed fabulous without any makeup and could spike a volley ball like some sort of Grecian goddess. She could be a cheerleader and captain of the brain bowl team. She built houses for poor people in Honduras, where she spoke flawless Spanish. Dammit Alicia O’Brien , you haunt me.
So yeah, that’s not an option for any but the .01% of Alicia O’Briens in the world. The other option Archer and Dewitt observed where what is known in the UK as “blue-stocking” scientists. These are girls who strongly identify with academic pursuits and have largely desexualized themselves. They typically have parents who take a strong hand in the daughters education and discourage the normal socializing and gender goofing off of early adolescence. You know this girl to, she’s serious, hard-working, intellectually intimidating, but not socially threatening. She’s above the game. This identity is also not terribly accessible (or desirable) for many girls.
Imagine, you are a middle school aged girl. You’ve already absorbed the implicit bias that science and math are the natural realm of boys. You probably think (though you may not admit it) that being good at math and science requires an innate talent (see fixed mindsets). Even if you are pretty good at math and science your performance in those areas doesn’t impact your interest in them as much as it would for boys, because most careers in math and science are not really “thinkable” for a girl. So, when you’re choosing extracurricular activities, you’re less likely to choose math and science options that conflict with your feminine (or non-binary) gender identity. Even if you’re an academically high performing student, you view math and science instrumentally, as hurdles to climb to get where you want, rather than interesting journeys to take just for the wonder. Over time these small biases and little choices feed into growing identity gaps and a future in science seems less and less like “you” as other things (art, sports, social ties) become more integrated into your sense of self.
In this way, the narrative around choices about science and identity get muddled and feel less like a narrative of oppression and exclusion and more like a natural arc. These choices away from science and toward something else were simply the journey to being who you always were. Sure, you liked science as a kid and you enjoy a good podcast about developing a missions to Mars, but science is not a part of who you are.
I like to tell a story about when my son was very little. Between the ages of 2-4 my son had a plan, and it was the best plan ever. When he grew up he would spend his days as a construction worker using massive equipment to tear down roads and buildings and then build other roads and buildings. By night he would be a janitor, cleaning up all the grossest messes of the world and vacuuming up all the spiders. In between he would sneak in princess time, art, and legos. He had all the accoutrement for these vocations. Big dump truck and excavator with real moving arms. Check. Janitor cart with feather duster, spray bottle, and working mini vacuum. Check. Art supplies and Legos. Check. Closet full of mermaid princess costumes. Check.
In the mind of a three year old, there are no limitations. You can literally be anything you want and you can be as many things as you want. Researchers, parents, and teachers, spend a lot of time and effort talking about adolescence, what it is, what it means, what’s happening. For me, the biggest discovery of adolescence - I mean, big flashing 50 foot tall sign type of discovery - is scarcity. This is the time when you realize, “Oh wait, I can’t be a cowboy, ballerina, astronaut, president. I’ve got to narrow this sh!t WAAAY down.” The world suddenly becomes very big and very small all at once. There’s an infinite array of choices, but you’ve got to pick and you’ve got to pick while walking a tight rope balancing 5 plates with a weasel crawling around in your hoodie. So just like hiring managers pouring through massive piles of resumes, you start looking for quick and easy disqualifiers . There’s a typo on this resume. Trash. This person doesn’t have a degree. Trash. There are very few girls scientists. Trash. Science is for boys. Trash. I’d have to give up a lot to be a girl scientist. Trash.
So . . . is there nothing we can do? Is this just a viscous cycle of inescapable socialization? Not at all! There are some really great rays of hope. After all, lots of girls (not half, but still a good chunk) do choose science and there things we can do to help more girls view science as “thinkable.”
Bucking the Trend
Among girls and women who identity with scientists, two common themes emerge in their narratives of how they came to love science: mentors and peers.
Opening Up the World of Science
Every girl I have ever spoken to who identifies with science talks about a teacher . They talk about teachers who brought so much enthusiasm and passion to science that their love for the subject was infectious. They talk about projects and activities that encourage creativity and centered on investigation. They describe instruction that enables students to see themselves as agentic beings in the world of science.
“He made science feel so fun it didn't really feel like the science that we
used to do.”
“Well, she's just fun! I mean, she won't let you off if you don't finish your homework, [but] she just finds a way to make everything interesting.”
In their excellent 2014 paper, Carlone, Scott & Lowder juxtapose two different classrooms. In the classroom of 4th grade teacher Ms. Wolfe the idea of what makes someone good at science is broadened to include creativity, supporting the learning of peers, and asking interesting questions. In Ms. Wolfe’s classroom the “celebrated figure” of the scientist was constructed much more inclusively than the fuzzy haired old white dude of stereotypes. Children had many venues to develop their own style and approach to building a science identity. None of which were centered on getting the “right answer.” A diverse array of children in Ms. Wolfe’s class identified as being good scientists. Each had his/her own way of being a good scientist that was personal and included their own intellectual and social strengths. Enthusiasm for the subject was high among her students.
Two years later, the same students were in the classroom of Mr. Campbell which was structured around the traditional ideas of completing worksheets and getting right answers. Knowledge in this classroom was passed from the teacher to the students and questions were for clarification, not creativity or curiosity. Gendered ideas about science were prevalent in the classroom. It was clear that Mr. Campbell, while thought of as a nice and “fun” teacher, was rooted in traditional ideas of what it takes to be a good scientist (compliant, perfect, organized). There was a notable dip in enthusiasm for science in Mr. Campbells class and a much narrower field of students who identified (and were identified by peers) as scientists.
How teachers approach the idea of the scientists and the role of students in their science education can make a difference in students identity development. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it long after everyone just rolls their eyes and says, “I know, mom/Dr. Todd, I know!” Welcoming all children into the world of science and supporting the adoption of science identities is as, if not more important, than the content we teach them.
Peers: Push and Pull
Another theme I’ve observed in the literature and from my own research is the presence of science-engaged female peers. Girls who unabashedly enjoy science and pursue it with vigor have peers and friends who share their interest. Having a group of friends to “nerd out” with and do experiments with is a way to overcome the gender STEM thinkability gap. The girls with the most positive outlooks about their future as scientists, in my research, are the ones who talk about doing science experiments at home with friends. They talk about taking apart electronics picked up at thrift stores, weekends spent wrecking the kitchen doing chemical reactions, and doing school science projects together.
Outside-of-school time with peers also appears as a theme in developing science identities. Tan and colleagues (2013) document an instance of one girls journey from a disengaged science student, to a fully-fledged science identity through an after school environmental science club. Kay, found a voice, and the respect of peers through the informal science club where she used her social skills and drive to become a science leader.
Peers can just as easily pull girls away from science. Tan and colleagues also found that jumping into more difficult science classes had social costs for minority girls who found themselves as one of the only non-white students in their classrooms and also due to scheduling conflicts, no longer shared classes or lunch time with their longtime friends. The pull to remain with fellow minority peers who understood their history and personality was strong for girls in this position. Many girls may feel a loss of connection with friends who do not share their interest in science, while boys will be much more likely to find relatable peers in the science milieu.
For girls who find passionate, inviting science teachers and peers who share their interest, science can be a wonderful playground of discovery and integrate into an enduring identity. Of course, finding those teachers and peers is the trick no, isn't it?
In my own research, however, I have found that just one teacher who welcomes girls into the world of science can make a huge difference, especially when girls can maintain contact with that teacher. Some do this by volunteering in their old classrooms and through clubs and special projects.
Parents can also play a role in helping girls build science engaged peer groups. More than a few girls I’ve known have “tricked” their friends into enjoying science with the help of parents. Families who have the time and resources to invite friends along to science outings (nature hikes, museum visits) can help foster interest in their daughters peers. Some parents go above and beyond, providing girls with fun weekend science activities, often bringing in elements of creativity that appeal science and non-science oriented children. I’ve known parents to weave arts and crafts and baking into lessons on chemical reactions, reflected light, and botany. It can be a tall order, especially for parents who themselves feel intimidated by science, but even an occasional small activity in which girls are free to explore the scientific world, outside of school, among friends, can be a powerful bonding experience.
 Yes, Alicia is real. No that’s not her name. Yes, she really was just the nicest person ever.
 Yes, I like metaphors. It’s not technically mixing metaphors if just serially stack them on top of one another.
 In a sad corollary, I have also heard plenty of tales from girls about how a teacher has damaged her connection to science or a particular discipline.
Archer, L., et al. (2013). "'Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous': primary school girls' and parents' constructions of science aspirations." Pedagogy, Culture & Society 21(1): 171-194.
Blickenstaff, J. C. (2005). "Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?" Gender and Education 17(4): 369-386.
Carlone, H. B., et al. (2014). "Becoming (less) scientific: A longitudinal study of students’ identity work from elementary to middle school science." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 51(7): 836-869.
Cvencek, D., et al. (2011). "Math-gender stereotypes in elementary school children." Child Development 82(3): 766-779.
Todd, B. (2015). Little Scientists: Identity, Self-Efficacy, and Attitudes Toward Science in a Girls' Science Camp. Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership. Eugene, OR, University of Oregon. PhD: 313.