Digital natives and identity development: What does this mean for parents and educators?
The gender gap in STEM
In recent years, there has been a lot of attention brought to the gender gap that exists in the STEM field. It is no longer deniable that women are largely outnumbered in STEM careers and many people have been pondering how to solve this issue. How can we get young girls to grow up to be women who are interested in STEM? Some well meaning folks have suggested that this issue requires a simple solution, that we just need to encourage all children to call themselves scientists, and they will therefore believe it to be true. However, this is not a simple issue that can be fixed with such little effort. Rather, it is an issue deeply rooted in centuries of gender oppression. To think that it requires such a simple answer is negligent to the root of the problem. When one fails to remove the roots of a weed, such as oppressive gender roles that are deeply ingrained in society, it simply grows back. It would be like slapping a bandaid on a hemorrhaging bullet hole. To solve the gender gap in the STEM fields, we need to actively work at dismantling the oppressive gender roles that send messages to young girls that science is for boys. If we fail to do this, we will keep creating generations of women who are dissuaded from holding careers in STEM and we will continue robbing our society of new, bright minds.
When people suggest that we should call all children scientists, they are likely doing so because the way we talk to children does matter. It has been shown that the way we speak to children can become internalized, used as memory aids, and helps to construct narratives (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 324). It has also been shown that there are gendered differences in the ways in which parents converse with their children. When parents talk to male children about their school day, they tend to focus more on instructions and what was learned at school. Whereas parents talk more about social interactions with female children. (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 326). It appears that if parents were to change the way they speak to their young children and call them all scientists, they will internalize the message and construct a personal narrative that they are indeed meant to be scientists.
The development of self is however, not as simple as just calling your child something. There are many factors that play into the development of one’s idea of self, this is done mostly through development of theory of mind and social learning. Theory of mind refers to a child’s abilities to understand that their thoughts are their own, separate from those around them (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, pp. 202-203). The development of theory of mind is the foundation of social cognition, as theory of mind allows us to “read the minds” of those around us and allows us to engage with them in a positive way (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 203). It is also a step towards self-concept, which is the understanding of one’s thoughts, the ability to distinguish yourself from others, and an understanding of intentionality (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p.421).
Gender identity is part of one’s self-concept, and as we develop we begin to understand that gender is constant and stable (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, pp. 426-427). As this is happening, we also start to pick up gender schemas. Gender schemas are the mental representation of gender and this is mostly learned through social learning such as observation (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 431). Gender roles, the ideas of how a gender is supposed to act based upon societal expectations, are also learned through social learning and are a part of our gender schemas (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, pp. 430-431).
One of the key ideas of social learning is the idea of imitation, meaning that they observe behaviors and then reenact demonstrated behaviors (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 409). Another way that one engages in social learning is through emulation, in which a child understands the intentions behind a behavior and engages in similar behaviors to achieve a goal. This is done without copying the model exactly (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 404). When children identify with a role model, they are very likely to engage in these acts of social learning (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, pp. 404-405). It has been shown that peer interactions are far more influential on perceptions of gender than parents are (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 437). This means that children are not only learning about gender roles from their parents actions, more importantly they view their peers as role models as well. The timing in which children learn about gender roles is sensitive as well, as it has been shown that rigidity of gender roles peaks at around 5 to 7 years old and again during adolescence (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 431). There are many factors that affect gender identity outside of parent interactions.
Where should we stand?
While those who are suggesting that we should call all children scientists are probably well meaning, it fails to consider that the learning of gender roles and gender identity are highly influenced by social learning through interactions with role models and peers. Development does not take place in a bubble that only surrounds parent and child. This means that just one set of parents working on the issue is not enough, but rather there needs to be a cultural shift in which a large majority of parents are working towards encouraging girls to be interested in STEM. This can be difficult to achieve if the majority of a culture is not ready for that shift, but with more attention being brought to the gender gap in STEM, this may be achievable in the near future.
Because gender concepts are mostly learned through role model observation, it will take more than just calling a child a name to encourage the idea that women belong in the STEM field. Rather, young girls and young boys will need to observe women acting as scientists or mathematicians. This observation needs to happen early, before oppressive gender roles because rigidly ingrained in our gender schemas. Young boys also need to be taught this message, as they often have more rigid concepts of gender roles. (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, pp. 430-431). This rigidity of gender roles may be due to societal messages that suggest that it is not okay for men to engage in feminine activities. Whereas it is more acceptable for women to be tomboys or engage in masculine activities. Since peers also have a great influence on gender perception, it is important that young boys also integrate the idea of women scientists into their gender schemas. If men are more accepting of women being in the STEM field, then it will be easier for women to get STEM related jobs.
Advice for parents and teachers
What should parents and teachers do then, to help teach children that women belong in the STEM field? While it certainly would not hurt to call all children scientists, it also would not hurt to take that a step further and tell children that they can grow up to be whatever they want, despite their gender. However, solving the issue of the gender gap in STEM will never be that simple. A lot more work needs to be done, as parents, teachers and society in general. One key solution to this gender gap would be to provide role models of female scientists to children. This can be done by teaching children about female scientists, which are often neglected in history and science lessons. We have all learned about Einstein and Newton, but what about Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin? Providing role models is important for social learning. This will allow children to be able to imitate and emulate female scientists. Another step that parents can take is by filtering the media that their children consume, and adding in media that shows representation of women in STEM fields. By doing this, we are once again supplying children with more positive female role models to imitate and emulate. A more active approach could be to engage in symbolic play with young children, in which girls can play a scientist. Symbolic play has been shown to be an important factor of development (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, p. 181). The creation of events and day camps that focus on gathering groups of girls to learn about engineering and science are also largely beneficial, as it allows girls to actively role play those STEM positions and also provides access to positive female role models. All of these suggestions are ways that can help to incorporate the idea that women do belong in STEM fields into the gender schemas of children. When this is part of gender schemas of future generations, then it will be more acceptable for women to be seen as scientists and girls will be less dissuaded from following their scientific passions. The issue is not that girls are simply not interested in science, but rather that from an early age all children are taught that girls are not scientists. While this may not be an easy problem to solve, it is possible.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018). Children’s thinking: cognitive development and
individual differences. Los Angeles: Sage.