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STEM stereotypes 'can affect female students' career aspirations'

28/06/2017 Joanna

Female students are at risk of having their perceptions of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning adversely influenced by cultural stereotypes well into the advanced years of their education.

This is according to a new study from Germany, published in the journal Frontiers for Psychology, which examined the attitudes of 296 female students attending German universities, all of whom were enrolled in STEM programmes whose student bases were less than 30 per cent female.

Even though the students participating in the study were likely to have achieved good grades in STEM subjects at school, established stereotypes about STEM disciplines being male-centric fields still appeared to affect their thinking, lowering their sense of competence, ability and self-confidence.

STEM career paths were perceived as atypical by those within the students' social environments, resulting in reactions of surprise or even scepticism. Another common perception was that girls' achievements in these subjects should be attributed to hard work rather than talent.

The study also indicated that direct interventions aimed at providing support for female students can backfire and reinforce these stereotypical views, suggesting more indirect methods may be preferable. Examples of this might include giving schoolgirls the opportunity to have positive experiences in science-related subjects, or opportunities to meet role models who are enthusiastic about their STEM professions.

Professor Bernhard Ertl, from the Universitat der Bundeswehr Munchen, said: "We were astonished that stereotypes about STEM still corrupt the self-concept of female students who already crossed several barriers and found their way into a STEM subject with a quite low proportion of females.

"Stereotypes are grounded in society and therefore, it is important for us to know the effect of our stereotypes on individuals' self-concepts, achievements and career decisions."

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