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Girls are less likely to see science as a viable career when taught alongside scientifically confident classmates

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Being in a classroom surrounded by children who are confident and interested in science can actually put girls off pursuing a career in STEM subjects, according to a new study. In contrast, boys seem to be inspired by their peers’ confidence and are more likely to see themselves in STEM roles as a result.

Despite studies consistently showing that girls perform at least as well as boys in science subjects at school, women are far less likely to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) occupations than men.

One explanation for this phenomenon is that girls are the victims of negative gender stereotypes. Put simply, STEM subjects are often viewed as masculine, and girls are often portrayed as being ‘less gifted’ in maths and science than men.

Efforts to reverse this trend have focused mainly on providing girls with visible role models. The idea being that if girls see successful female scientists in the media, or read about them in books, they will be much more likely to consider a career in STEM.

However, this study, published in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Sociology of Education, suggests that the issue may be more complicated.

Janina Beckmann, a researcher from the University of Cologne and the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training in Germany, analysed data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), a longitudinal study in Germany which tracks the lives of 60,000 people from birth until adulthood.

Beckmann focused on 8,711 9th graders from 916 classrooms across Germany. In Germany, 9th graders are usually 14-15 years old.

Each of the children were asked what their dream occupation would be given no constraints, what kind of job they expected to do in the future and to what extent they agreed with statements like ‘mathematics is one of my best subjects’, ‘I learn quickly in mathematics’ and ‘I’ve always been good at mathematics’.

The study showed that just 10% of the pupils surveyed expected to work in a STEM occupation in the future. Of those, 84% were male and 17% female.

The results highlight the huge impact that classroom culture has on male and female pupil’s job expectations.

Being in a classroom surrounded by pupils who see STEM as an aspirational career choice seemed to inspire boys, who were more likely to view themselves in such a role as a result. However, this environment had the opposite effect on girls, even when they found themselves in classrooms with a high proportion of females with high aspirations in science.

The same pattern was found when looking at classmates’ confidence in maths. Girls taught alongside pupils who expressed confidence in maths were far less likely to see themselves in a STEM role. While boys taught in this environment were much more likely to choose a STEM job.

The finding challenges the idea that all you need to do to increase the number of female scientists is to provide girls with visible role models.

‘My study confirms that females are less likely than males to expect to work in STEM occupations, even when they have comparable abilities and aspirations,’ says Beckmann.

‘One explanation could be that perhaps despite perhaps aspiring to be scientists, girls lose confidence in their abilities when taught alongside other confident and aspirational pupils. Whereas boys may be more likely to thrive in such a competitive environment.’