The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

College students’ perceptions of gender stereotypes: making connections to the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields

Partners' Institution
University of the Basque Country
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
Science Education
Thematic Area
Gender Inequality
How college students view societal gender stereotypes is likely to affect their social identities. Amongst the subgroup of females interested in STEM careers, ‘analytical’ and ‘thinks logically’ were rated as more male dominate. This result is a concern in that if women in STEM fields believe that society associates these traits with males, then there may be dissonance between their female social identity and their STEM social identity. This disconnect may cause them to question their sense of belonging. Another important finding is that stereotypes still exist that women are expected to care for others, and this stereotype was noted more strongly by females than males. This discrepancy may be one reason why family life-choices, dramatically increases the likelihood of a woman leaving a STEM career as opposed to women in non-STEM fields.
One final result of our study was that the students who had a more educated mother than father did demonstrate less traditionally gendered views on some of the items related to academic and professional success, emphasizing the importance of role models in the reduction of social gender stereotypes. College women who had been exposed to either information about famous women in leadership roles or women in leadership roles in their college environment had fewer implicit gender stereotypes than college women without such exposure.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Women continue to remain highly underrepresented in other STEM fields, such as engineering, physics and computer science. This may be due to the society’s stereotypes about scientists and mathematicians, influencing many women’s choice on whether or not to choose a career in STEM.
Social Identity Theory (SIT) argues that an individual’s self-concept is formed by a compilation of their personal identity and their social identity. One’s personal identity is based on their beliefs of their own personal attributes while one’s social identity is developed through a combination of their own beliefs about their social in-groups and their knowledge of how society evaluates their social in-groups (gender, race, profession, etc.).
Women in male-dominated fields appear to experience some form of conflict between the stereotypical female identity and their professional identities and often develop strategies (consciously or not) in order to continue to define themselves positively within their social groups.
Stereotypes have been defined as beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of certain groups. Thus, many studies have demonstrated that students, teachers and even parents think about scientists and mathematicians as male and old with glasses, lab coat, facial hair, limited social life and being geniuses. It is also interesting to know that these stereotypes become stronger with age.
Regarding desirability of the traits, masculine traits (aggressive, competitive, logical, a leader, ambitious, confident and analytical) were repeatedly seen as more desirable in society than feminine traits (emotional, talkative, affectionate, gentle, dependent, and sensitive to the needs of others). However, that idea have been changing last years due to a more positive social view of women.
Students are influenced by an enormous amount of people and inputs, such as parents, teachers and media. Studies have shown that if those people have stronger stereotypical beliefs, the children around will also have them.
The purpose of this study was to better understand current perceptions of gender stereotypes among first year college students, so researchers surveyed 499 first year college students from different career choice categories (STEM and non-STEM).
Their finding indicate that college students believe that certain personality attributes are considered by society to be gender specific. Nevertheless, it is important to note the large number of personality attributes that were classified as gender neutral. These results are a change from the studies done in the 1960s and 1970s.
A common theme was that females are stereotypically supposed to care for other. Conversely, many of the characteristics that partipipants felt were male dominate were closely related to be highly successful in industry (competitive, inclined to take risks and being a leader).
Interestingly, while characteristics associated with being successful in the work-force were considered male dominate, characteristics associated with being successful academically were considered wither gender-neutral or slightly female dominate. These results suggest that while college students believe that both genders are seen as having traits that allow them to be strong academically, men are seen as more likely to have traits that allow them to be highly successful beyond academics.
Some of the largest effect sizes were with items related to caring about people such as ‘concerned about future family obligations,’ ‘shows concern for people’s wellbeing,’ and ‘puts others’ needs above one’s own needs.’ These findings suggest that females feel a strong societal pressure to take care of others, even more so than their male peers may realize.
Finally, results indicate that when a participant’s mother had a higher level of education than their father did, they were more likely to view society as seeing ‘is a leader’ and ‘analytical’ as less male/more female than those whose father had a higher level of education. Moreover, participants whose mothers had a higher education were more likely to rate ‘academically motivated’ as being stereotypically more female dominant than those whose fathers had a higher level of education.
Point of Strength
It is important to identify which stereotypical characteristics have an effect on each students' perception of his/her academic performance.
Gender stereotypes, personality attributes, STEM careers, STEM stereotypes
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