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Early Biases Regarding Girls and STEM May Result in Lifelong Inequalities

Girls may be good students, but biases can block them from lucrative STEM jobs.

Key points

  • Girls are stereotyped as the "good students," both in their obedient behavior in class and their grades.
  • By first grade, children believe that boys are better at STEM than girls.
  • Once girls internalize the bias that math is for boys, they pull their academic selves away from math and toward languages.

Girls are in a double bind in which they are perceived (and expected) to be smart, but not too smart. By the time children begin elementary school, girls are already the “good” students. Teachers perceive girls in their classes as well-mannered and compliant relative to boys in class. It isn’t a wholly inaccurate stereotype, as girls, on average, do better in their classes. They outnumber boys 57 to 43 percent in bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States, and, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, often have higher standardized test scores than boys.

It also isn’t surprising that teachers see girls are being better behaved than boys given that this is how parents socialize girls: to be nice, quiet, obedient, and not take up too much space.

Expectation for Girls: Good Students But Not the Best

But, although girls are expected to be the good students in class, they are not expected to be the best students in class. When researchers asked elementary-school–aged children who does well in school by earning good grades, children overwhelmingly said girls. But when they asked who is “really, really smart,” by age 6, both boys and girls said it is the boys. In other words, by first grade, kids believe that girls can be good students, but only boys can be brilliant.1 This bias echoes that found in parents, as parents are two and a half times more likely to google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Similarly, they google the phrases “Is my son intelligent?” and “Is my son a genius?” more than the comparable questions about daughters.2

The other biased restriction for girls is that their expertise needs to be focused on certain subjects. Although girls earn higher grades than boys in math and science classes, and a meta-analysis of statewide standardized math tests found that boys and girls do not differ from one another in any domain of math performance, children, teachers, and parents believe that boys are better at, and more interested in, STEM than girls.

Researchers analyzed large, nationally representative data sets of children’s school achievement, along with their teachers’ ratings of their academic proficiency and the students’ learning behaviors — behaviors such as self-direction in the classroom, organization, and showing an eagerness to learn, all the behaviors that make it easier to learn and that teachers love to see. They found that when they matched boys and girls on the same level of actual math achievement and the same level of positive learning behaviors, teachers rated girls’ math proficiency lower than boys.

Reasons for Math Gender Gap

The researchers noted that the reason the gender gap in math seems to be shrinking rather than flipped is because, although girls are actually doing much better in class and on tests, they have to show extra ability and extra effort before teachers recognize their math proficiency. If this was a fair race, girls would be running ahead of boys, outpacing them by a few yards — until the teacher starts pulling the girls back, slowing them down, so that boys tie, all while the audience comments about how everyone is equal.

By first grade, children have absorbed the stereotype that boys are better at STEM than girls. When presented with a picture of a girl and a boy and asked, “Which one likes math more?” they point to the boy. They also respond more quickly by pressing a specific key on a computer keyboard when a boy name (like Michael or Andrew) is paired with a math word (like addition or numbers), and respond more quickly when a girl name (like Emily or Jessica) is paired with a reading word (like books and story).3 Because of these biases, girls eventually lose confidence, motivation, and interest in STEM subjects, even when they are doing well in the classes.

Once girls internalize this bias that math is for boys, they pull their academic selves away from math and toward languages.

The result of these biases is that many girls opt out of the STEM subjects most associated with boys — namely computers and engineering. According to the National Science Foundation in 2020, although women earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, they earn only 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science. Within the workforce, only 13 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computer scientists are women. Because starting salaries in STEM careers are 26 percent higher than non-STEM careers ($66,123 vs. $52,299), girls opting out of high-paying STEM careers perpetuates wage gaps between men and women. The early biases, even if they are happening accidentally, lead to lifelong inequalities.

This post is excerpted from Unraveling Bias: How Prejudice Has Shaped Children for Generations and Why It Is Time to Break the Cycle.


1. Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian A. "Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests," Science 355, no. 6323 (2017): 389–391.

2. Stephens-Davidowitz, S. “Google, tell me. Is my son a genius?” New York Times, January 18, 2014,…

3. Steffens M. C. & Jelenec, P. "Separating implicit gender stereotypes regarding math and language: Implicit ability stereotypes are self-serving for boys and men, but not for girls and women," Sex Roles 64, no. 5-6 (2011): 324–335.

More from Christia S. Brown Ph.D.
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