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Future teachers still believe the stereotype that girls are not good at technology

  Photo: StartupStockPhotos en Pixabay

Photo: StartupStockPhotos en Pixabay

Elsa Velasco
Gender bias contributes to women being underrepresented in ICT-related professions

Primary and secondary school teachers in training have assimilated gender stereotypes that could deter their future female students from pursuing scientific and technical careers. These are the preliminary results of a study by the Gender and ICT (GENTIC) research group of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC).

April 25 is the International Girls in ICT Day, which is celebrated to encourage young women to choose careers in the information and telecommunication technologies (ICT) field. In spite of the progress made in gender issues over the last few decades, women continue to be underrepresented in the so-called STEM professions, which encompass science, technology, engineering and mathematics and have traditionally been male-dominated.

In this sense, the situation has not improved much. According to the latest data from the Institute of Women, in Spain, in the 2016/2017 academic year, only 26% of those enrolled in engineering were women, a figure that has remained stagnant for a decade. Degrees with the lowest female representation are electronic engineering, where only 13% of students are women, and computer engineering, with 15%. Although in science the proportion between both genders has evened out, in some branches, such as physics, women are still a minority: they represent just 28% of those enrolled.


The impact of stereotypes

Both women and men are equally capable of pursuing any of these careers. The difference is marked by stereotypes rooted in society about the skills and competencies of each gender, such as women having better communication skills and men being better at abstraction and calculation. That makes many girls feel unable to pursue a career in professions related to calculation and technology.

“Students need to present a role that is consistent with society’s gender model, a model that can also be transferred to competencies and skills. For boys it makes sense to study scientific-technical careers, but not for girls”, stated Mara del Carmen Gallego, a researcher at the IN3's GENTIC research group at the UOC.

One of the factors that perpetuates gender stereotypes among boys and girls are their own teachers. “There are studies that reveal that teachers have a different attitude towards boys and girls. Teachers who show these beliefs tend to encourage boys to learn more science than girls, perhaps unconsciously. That contributes to such biased professions”, said Gallego. Stereotypes do not only affect motivation, but also the perception that little girls have of their own abilities and the results they finally obtain. “There is still no awareness of stereotypes' importance in influencing whether children end up choosing to study one subject or another”, Gallego added.


Unconscious biases

With the aim of quantifying the problem, Ms Gallego studies the extension of gender stereotypes, not only among students of the bachelor's degree in Primary Education and the master's degree in Teacher Training - Secondary Education, Language Teaching and Vocational Training, who will be future teachers, but also in the training they receive. Within the framework of the ESTEREO project, she has conducted in-depth interviews with twenty-four students of both genders from universities in Barcelona.

The preliminary results show that teachers in training still have assimilated gender stereotypes regarding boys' and girls' abilities. “The majority of students, both male and female, studying for their bachelor's degree and master's degree in education continue to attribute better skills to girls for education, social sciences and humanities, and to boys for numbers, technology, computer science, experimental sciences and all abstract and technical tasks”, Gallego explained. “The most surprising thing is that they are not aware of having these stereotypes and how they can influence students, their perception of their own abilities, their interests and their marks”, the researcher added.


Lack of training in gender perspective

Furthermore, interviews have found that there is no specific gender perspective training within the curricula of future teachers, which makes it more difficult for them to detect and reverse stereotypes. The first results also highlight the lack of female role models in professions related to engineering and technology in both primary and secondary school textbooks. However, with the growing trend of each teacher developing their own teaching material, the biases they may have become even more significant than those of the publishers, argued Gallego.

“It is essential that we start providing training workshops for primary, secondary and university teachers so they become experts in gender perspective”, said Gallego. According to this researcher, it is crucial that the gap between the number of men and women in the STEM professions be narrowed. “Professions that target women more markedly, such as those involving care, children or cleaning, are associated with lower status and salary. The STEM professions, which stereotypes assign more to men, are associated with higher prestige and a higher salary”.

“What’s more, we are in the technological and digital era. We need more women involved in building this new reality to neutralize the sexist technology of today and of the future. We can’t be left behind”, Gallego concluded.