In 2016, 13% of nursing students in Australia were male, only 2% more than three decades earlier. At this rate, it will take well over 500 years to achieve gender parity. In some areas, there is even a decreasing trend: In 1989, 27% of IT students were female, which dropped to 17% in 2016.
I spoke to developmental psychologist Dr Christia Spears Brown from the University of Kentucky, USA, who confirmed that young girls perceive STEM subjects such as IT, maths and physics as male domains. This gender divide is apparent in consistently low numbers of female bachelor and postgraduate students in maths and physics.
How is it possible that after decades of gender equity efforts across all aspects of society, our children still believe that some professions are more suited for one gender? According to Dr Spears Brown, gender biases are well entrenched associations developed in the first few years of life. Just like a toddler learning a language through comprehension of recurring grammatical structures, humans recognise and internalise patterns in all aspects of life. This ability enables children to adapt to their world quickly and efficiently. It also means, however, that once these patterns are established, it takes time and effort to detect and rewire them. In other words, we are all biased and unconsciously express gender stereotypes.
This seems like a catch-22, doesn’t it? Children are exposed to adults who grew up with implicit bias themselves and which they are not even aware of. Now it’s time for the great news though! There is plenty we can do:
- Understand your bias: As gender bias manifests early in life, we are not aware of it until we explicitly look for it. Asking ourselves questions such as, “What is a typical girl like?” and “What are girls and boys naturally drawn to?” can help us unravel those deeply ingrained patterns.
- Practice makes perfect: Identifying gender stereotypes becomes easier the more we analyse our behaviour, thoughts and reactions in everyday situations.
- Monitor your language: The language we use with our children has an enormous impact on the development of gender stereotypes. Studies show that the differences in language are often subtle and hard to detect. For instance, parents of male toddlers use more numbers when talking to them than parents of little girls.
In short, the more we know about our stereotypical thoughts, the better we can control them. Let’s get to work!
In the STEM Hour webinar on 8 October, our panel will discuss what we can do to prevent gender bias in young children and what needs to happen to create a world where all children can reach for the stars.
Article author: Heike Hendershot
National Training Manager
Heike manages the development of our workshop content and supports our training facilitators. A critical thinker with the ability to wonder, she believes in honouring each child’s individual skills and abilities.