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Breaking the Barbie myth

New research shows girls and boys, aged 6-18, perform equally well in the STEM fields, suggesting that the lack of women in STEM fields is due to a cultural bias.

Girls score just as well as boys in STEM subjects

In a Microsoft-funded survey, 23 per cent of female students aged 12-16 in the U.K. believe that STEM subjects are geared towards boys. (Shutterstock)

It's a common misconception that girls have less aptitude in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). But new research shows the gender differences in academic grades don't fit the perceived patterns.

You may remember 1992's Teen Talk Barbie declaring that "Math class is tough." It was denounced for stereotyping girls as not being adept at STEM subjects such as math.

A new study released this week in Nature Communications shows that girls and boys score equally in STEM-related fields. The team from the University of New South Wales Sydney used test scores from over 1.6 million students, aged 6 to 18, from all over the world. They found no difference in the aptitude of male and female classmates in STEM subjects.

The study's authors say that schooling has a strong influence on the career aspirations of students. While girls tend to earn the same school grades as boys, including in STEM subjects, the well-paid research-based STEM-based jobs are predominantly filled by men.

Conforming to stereotypes

According to the study, girls are susceptible to conforming to stereotypes in the traditionally male-dominated fields of STEM. And research shows the stereotypes are prolific.

A recent UNESCO report on the state of girls in the STEM fields outlined the reasons why girls drop out of the STEM fields and a lot of it has to do with societal expectations.

In a Microsoft-funded survey, 23 per cent of female students aged 12-16 in the U.K. believe that STEM subjects are geared towards boys.

A 2009 survey of over 500,000 people from 34 countries showed that 70 per cent believed there was a difference in aptitude between girls and boys in the STEM fields.

The importance of role models

The UNESCO report outlined several interventions to keep girls in the STEM fields. The work starts at home, as female students are most influenced by their mother's opinion of their field.  

Society also needs to provide good female role models as examples and expose female students, and male students, to diverse images of people with careers in STEM fields.

In science textbooks in India, over 50 per cent of the images are male-only, while just six per are female-only.

Still, there is hope that trends are shifting. At the University of Alberta, more than 50 per cent of the incoming biology majors are female.

And as technology advances and becomes more important in our everyday lives, we will need the brightest and best working in the field — regardless of gender.

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.

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