Today’s girls are seeing more images of women in STEM careers, and it’s wonderful. Right now, I’m looking at these illustrated posters of women innovators from the group Women You Should Know: there’s Maria da Penha, a biopharmacist and human rights defender; Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space; and Rosalind Franklin, who was instrumental in discovering the structure of DNA. I’d love to hang these works of art in my daughter’s room to help her see all that is possible.
But when it comes to supporting young girls’ interest in science, I shouldn’t stop there. Simply telling kids “look what you can be” is not enough. In fact, that kind of language might even be inhibiting. As cognitive scientist Sian Beilock writes for The Hechinger Report, new research shows that “telling young girls they can be scientists, rather than do science, can actually stifle their interest and motivation.” (Language did not have the same effect on boys in the study.)
When preschool-age children are introduced to science – whether in the classroom, at a museum or even while watching PBS – it’s usually in very basic terms: “Scientists solve problems”; “scientists discover new things”; “scientists are explorers.”
These types of statements sound innocent enough, but they actually paint scientists as a group of people with very distinct skills and interests.
In talking to her seven-year-old daughter, Beilock reframes her language to show science as an activity she can partake in. “When I frame things like picking apart a whole fish at dinner or measuring ingredients to make pancakes as ‘doing science,’ my daughter jumps at the chance to participate.” My own six-year-old daughter is obsessed with glitter slime, and I’ve shrugged off the sticky rainbow mess that she makes at the kitchen table to tell her, “Wow, I love that you love science!”
Our young girls may or may not ever put on lab coats and pursue STEM careers, but that doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. Instead, they might spend their lives looking for answers to questions, and learn by thinking, observing and experimenting. You know, just like a scientist.