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Bridging the Gender Gap: Encouraging Girls in STEM Starts at Home

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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

The 21st century has been defined by rapid innovation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields -- a trend showing no signs of slowing down. In 2011, women surpassed men in attaining bachelor's and advanced degrees for the first time, according to the U.S. Census. Despite these developments, a gender gap persists in the STEM workforce and is only getting wider. In computer science, only 18 percent of American college majors are women, a number that has been declining over the last 30 years (National Center for Women & Information Technology, 2012). When it comes to university professors, just 17 percent of tenure-track faculty in mathematics are female, and a paltry 11 percent in engineering (National Science Foundation, 2008). Even with vast differences in the pursuit of STEM careers, it is notable that standardized measures of math performance show no meaningful differences between males and females from elementary school through college.

There are many factors that might influence a girl or young woman's decision to pursue a particular career path. While the majority of studies show no differences in STEM ability, a large divide in perceived competence starts as early as age five. One study found that by the spring of kindergarten, boys have a greater willingness to learn math concepts. By third grade, boys rate their own math competence higher than girls do, even though no differences in actual performance are found. If girls do not expect to succeed in math and other STEM domains as early as elementary school, it is not surprising that by college, their interests have shifted to fields in which they feel more confident.

There is also a widely held stereotype that boys possess more innate STEM ability than girls, which has been found to impact children's performance. Girls as young as seven have been shown to underperform on math tasks when their gender has been made salient. Furthermore, several studies have found that children are socialized differently regarding mathematics based on gender. Boys tend to receive more encouragement in math from parents and teachers, and mothers overestimate boys' abilities compared to girls'. When discussing an interactive exhibit at a science museum, parents have been found to explain scientific concepts three times more often to boys than girls. And even at very young ages, children tend to receive gender-specific toys that may promote STEM skills such as building or spatial reasoning more to boys.

If we know that by kindergarten, boys and girls have different attitudes toward math, where did these ideas come from? With my colleagues Catherine Sandhofer and Christia Brown, I conducted an analysis of everyday speech between mothers and their preschool-aged children (toddlers, with an average age of 22 months). The findings were surprising. Even at this young age, mothers spoke to boys two to three times as often about numbers and quantities compared to girls. For example, phrases such as "he has two eyes" or "How many feet do you have?" appeared nearly three times more in mother-son conversations than mother-daughter ones. In line with previous work on gender socialization, the greater confidence that boys show by early elementary school might be influenced by early experiences at home with their parents.

What are the implications of bringing more attention to numbers and math concepts to young boys than to girls, even at two years of age? I believe that there are many -- some more immediate, and some more far-reaching. First, it appears that gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained in our culture. This was shown not only in the study I conducted on two-year-old children, but also in the lingering gender gaps in perceived competence in STEM in kindergartners all the way up through the skewed ratio that exists among tenure-track faculty at the university level. Moreover, early exposure to numbers might lead to differences in STEM-related interest and confidence, which could in turn influence girls to turn away from these fields early on in their schooling, perpetuating the cycle that has led to the paucity of women in STEM majors and careers.

The first step in creating meaningful change is to acknowledge existing challenges. Instead of focusing on the stereotypes that might discourage girls and women from pursuing the STEM fields, I believe that we have the opportunity to bring positive change. Bringing awareness to gender disparities allows us to be cognizant of how we speak to girls, mentor young women, or support university faculty members throughout all stages of their careers. Personally, I am dedicating the next phase of my career to bridging the gap between theory, practice, and product development, to create meaningful learning experiences in delightful products for both boys and girls. As the 21st century is one of rapid innovation and progress, wouldn't closing the gender gap be one of the greatest accomplishments of all time?

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