by Annie Shan (Jan. 29, 2024)

The Gender Gap in STEM: a Statistical Overview

Countless studies have debunked the notion of gender-based intelligence differences in mathematics, showing that girls are just as good as boys. Yet, the current state of affairs remains unsatisfactory, with a significant gender disparity prevailing throughout girls' STEM education and careers. The shocking statistics are hard to ignore:

Gender Stereotyping as the Root Cause of Gender Divide in Math-Heavy Fields

Such a substantial gender gap in math can be traced back to gender stereotypes. Girls as young as 6 and 7 years old internalize the prejudicial belief that girls are less capable in math than boys. In one study, when elementary school girls were asked to draw a mathematician, the girls are twice as likely to draw a man (61%) than a woman (30.5%). Furthermore, the cultural belief associating “math brains” with boys has undermined girls’ confidence and sense of belonging in math. In one study, despite similar grades, middle school girls reported considerably lower self-esteem in their math abilities than boys did. In a high school student survey, only 58% of girls described their STEM class participation as “frequent and confident,” compared to 76% of boys.

The Power of Mindset in Overcoming Gender Stereotypes in Math

Now, you might wonder, since it is impossible to eliminate gender bias from society in the near future, can we ever imagine a world where all girls confidently realize their math potential? The answer is yes. Gender stereotyping may threaten girls’ self-assurance and performance in math, but the differentiating factor between those who give in to it and those who don’t is mindset. In two studies, one conducted on Columbia students and another on high school 11th-graders, those who held a growth mindset–perceiving their math proficiency as something they could strengthen through effort–were unaffected by gender bias both academically and psychologically.  Unconvinced by stereotypical beliefs, growth-minded girls embraced challenging mathematical tasks, maintained their motivation in the face of difficulties, and actively learned from the mistakes they made when solving math problems. In contrast, stereotyping strongly impacted girls who held a fixed mindset–viewing their math ability as innate and unchangeable. When bumping up against a frustrating task, fix-minded girls often doubted their competence in math; gradually, many of them no longer felt included and comfortable in math settings.

Returning to the earlier question, how can we shatter the barriers that have held back our girls in math? While urging society members to stop labeling girls in math is vital, equally important is transforming girls’ perceptions of such stereotypes. And how do we ignite this change? Through nurturing a growth mindset in girls.