Gender Stereotypes About Coding Ability Start as Young as 1st Grade, Study Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — May 10, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Experience programming robots can make young girls more interested in technology and more confident in their abilities in related subjects, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found.

But programming experience didn’t diminish girls’ gendered stereotypes about STEM ability. The 1st graders in the study, girls and boys alike, thought that boys were better at programming and robots.

This is the first study to find that children as young as age 6 have stereotypes about programming and robotics ability, wrote the researchers. It was surprising to see that gendered stereotypes about programming took hold so early, Allison Master, a research scientist at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and the lead researcher on the study, said in an interview. However, she said, these attitudes are part of a well-established, larger trend.

Girls are persistently underrepresented in computer science at all grade levels, even as more states and districts are adding the subject to their standards and curricula. Girls are less confident than boys in their ability to learn computer science and are less likely to say they expect to have a career in engineering or computing.

Girls internalize stereotypes that computer science and coding are for boys, said Master, and are discouraged from pursuing these subjects. Early intervention could be the key to engaging girls, the researchers said in the study.

“If we give them the same social situation and the same social cues, will boys and girls show equal interest?” said Master. “And we found, yes, they do.”

The results of this experiment support findings from a study earlier this year, which found that just one hour of coding experience could increase high school girls’ interest and self-efficacy in the subject.

Effects of Programming Experience

Master and her colleagues randomly assigned 96 1st graders to one of three experimental groups. The first group—the treatment group—used a smartphone to program a “pet” robot. Students used drag-and-drop tools on the phone to map out a route for the robot along a path of tiles. The robot could be programmed to walk in a straight line, turn right or left, or make loops—sequences of directions that are repeated over and over again. (See videos of the girls programming here and here.)

The second group played a storytelling card game with the researcher, and the third group did not do any activity.

Students in the three groups were then asked about their interest in programming and robots, and how good they thought they were with robots. (The researchers defined programming for the 6-year-olds as “when you tell a computer or a robot or a phone what to do.”)

Girls who programmed the pet robot reported significantly higher levels of self-efficacy and interest in the subjects than the girls who played the storytelling game or did no activity. And programming experience closed the gender gap in motivation—among the students who programmed the robot, there was no significant difference in technology interest or confidence between girls and boys.

However, boys and girls in all experimental groups thought that boys were better at programming and robotics—programming experience did not change girls’ stereotypes about these fields. Girls who held these stereotypes reported lower interest in technology and self-efficacy than girls who did not.

Researchers also asked girls and boys who was better at other STEM subjects, like math and science. In these domains, both girls and boys showed in-group bias, said Master—girls said that girls were better at math, and boys said that boys were.

Combatting Stereotypes

Despite some encouraging results, further research is needed to figure out what kind of interventions would foster a sustained interest in STEM for girls, the researchers wrote.

Master suggests enrolling girls in STEM-themed after-school clubs or summer camps, where students have regular exposure to computer science in a fun, social setting.

The researchers also warned against gendering computer science activities or toys, even in attempts to make them more appealing to girls. Previous research has shown that making coding stereotypically “feminine"—using pink materials, for example—can “backfire” by reinforcing gender stereotypes, and actually make girls less interested in STEM, the researchers wrote.

“If you color-code everything,” said Master, “then they’re going to think, “Oh okay, my gender is relevant here.”

“If you make something that’s fun, that all the kids like, we can help the next generation enjoy technology and engineering without picking up on all the stereotypes that we perceive when we think about computer science and engineering,” she said.

Hopefully, positive experiences can create a “buffer” for girls against the negative stereotypes, said Master. Girls who have programming time under their belts and feel confident in their abilities still know that stereotypes exist, she said, but may be less likely to believe they’re true.

“Stereotypes get inside our heads in subtle ways. When you see a computer scientist on television or in a book, it’s usually a man—probably a white man or an Asian man,” said Master. “Every little instance of that builds up into these big stereotypes inside our heads. To counteract them is very, very difficult.”

Photo: In this 2015 photo, 3rd grader Iyana Simmons works on a coding exercise at Michael Anderson School in Avondale, Ariz. The 5,600-student school system, outside Phoenix, teaches computer coding to all students in grades K-8. Nick Cote for Education Week - File.

See also:

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.