Education

For girls, it's better to say 'let's do science'

A schoolgirl carries her new 'Magellan' laptop at a primary school in Lisbon September 23, 2008. Portugal's Socialist government began the roll-out on Tuesday of 500,000 ultra-cheap laptops for school children in a programme that could be extended to Venezuela, the government said. The computers called 'Magellan' after 16th-century Portuguese explorer Magalhaes Magellan will use Intel processors and will be offered to schools at a subsidised price of 50 euros.   REUTERS/Nacho Doce   (PORTUGAL) - GM1E49N1N0201

The disparity between genders in science begins at a young age. Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

James Devitt
Deputy Director of Media Relations , New York University
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Education?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Education is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Education

“Describing science as actions, by saying ‘let’s do science,’ leads to more science engagement than does describing science in terms of identities, by asking them to ‘be scientists,'” explains Marjorie Rhodes, an associate professor in New York University’s psychology department and the senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science.

“These effects particularly hold for children who are the target of stereotypes suggesting that they might not be the kind of person who succeeds in science—in this case, girls,” she adds.

These findings suggest that efforts encouraging girls to enter science—a field in which they are underrepresented—might benefit from focusing on describing the activity of doing science rather than on encouraging children to adopt scientist identities, at least in early childhood.

“The roots of gender disparities in science achievement take hold in early childhood,” Rhodes observes. “This research identifies an element of children’s environments that could be targeted to reduce early gender differences in science behavior among young children.”

Action, not identity

Rhodes and her coauthors, who include Princeton University’s Sarah-Jane Leslie, note that the messaging children often receive through television shows centers on identity rather than action when it comes to science.

For instance, in a 2017 analysis of children’s television shows, Rhodes and Leslie found that popular programs refer to scientists as a kind of person more often than they refer to science as an activity that people do. In other words, these television shows are missing an opportunity to use language that is more effective in encouraging girls in science, they conclude.

In the newly published study, the researchers conducted four studies with children aged four to nine years old. Here, the children received an introduction to science that described science as an identity (“Let’s be scientists! Scientists explore the world and discover new things!”) or as action (“Let’s do science! Doing science means exploring the world and discovering new things!”).

Have you read?

Children were then asked to complete a new science game designed to illustrate the scientific method. The researchers measured persistence by how long they continued to play this game.

Notably, girls who were initially asked to “do science” showed more persistence on the subsequent science game than girls who had been asked to “be scientists” did.

What about boys?

By contrast, the effects of language for boys were more variable. For instance, one of their studies found that boys younger than five years old showed greater persistence when language was action-oriented while those older than five revealed higher levels of persistence when language was identity-oriented.

Overall, these findings suggest that identity-focused language can undermine persistence in some children as they acquire new skills, particularly when cultural stereotypes lead children to question if they hold the relevant identity.

The results are consistent with another study by Rhodes and her colleagues. That work, published in the journal Child Development last year, found that using verbs to talk about pro-social actions with children, such as asking them “to help” instead of to “be helpers,” led to more pro-social helping behavior after children experienced setbacks.

This National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
EducationGender Inequality
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How boosting women’s financial literacy could help you live a long, fulfilling life 

Morgan Camp

April 9, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum