These stereotypes can extend into the late teens and contribute to a gender gap in STEM college courses and related careers, according to a new study that explores the gender-based beliefs young children and teens hold about interest in STEM fields.

“Gender-interest stereotypes that STEM is for boys begins in grade school, and by the time they reach high school, many girls have made their decision not to pursue degrees in computer science and engineering because they feel they don’t belong,” says Allison Master, an assistant professor of psychological, health, and learning sciences at the University of Houston and lead author of the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research involved four different studies—a mix of surveys and designed experiments to capture the beliefs of a racially diverse sample of children and teens in grades 1 through 12.

Researchers wanted to focus on interest, building on past studies of stereotypes about ability, to learn how gender-based stereotypes about who likes—not just who is “good” at—computer science and engineering can affect a child’s sense of belonging and willingness to participate.

Such information can influence a young person’s motivation over the long term, researchers point out, and may deter them from trying an activity or taking a class.

As recently as 2019, national statistics reveal that women are underrepresented in some popular and lucrative STEM careers: United States Census Bureau statistics show that only about 25% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers are women.

In the first two studies, researchers surveyed more than 2,200 children and teens to gauge beliefs about computer science and engineering. The surveys used terms and phrases with which the students were familiar at school, such as “computer coding” for computer science or, for engineering, “designing and creating large structures such as roads and bridges.”

Read the full article about barriers for girls in STEM by Kim Eckart at Futurity.