Little girls are often told they can be anything they want to be. Some dream of being astronauts or exploring the depths of the ocean or curing diseases.  But as they get older, many girls get the impression that the people who are in those fields don’t look like them, that maybe they aren’t cut out to pursue those dreams after all. Feeling alienated or pressured to conform to what’s expected of their gender , some girls get dissuaded from entering fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—STEM for short.

For years researchers have assessed how gender stereotypes discourage girls in science. Lots of institutions, both academic and cultural, have taken steps to show girls that not all scientists are men, publishing historical biographies on women in science and adding female scientist Legos to instill the idea that women can be scientists from a young age. But new research indicates that girls exposed to stereotypes about women in STEM elicit different responses from girls of different races.  

"I feel like we’ve been studying [all] women in STEM, but what we’ve been really studying is white women," said Laurie O’Brien, a psychology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and the lead author of the new study. Researchers haven’t paid enough attention to exploring how women of various ethnicities experience the stereotypes and culture of STEM fields in different ways, she said. Her work, which is focused on the internalized stereotypes about science in white and black women, seeks to change that.

The study, published in September in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, addressed one basic question: Do stereotypes about gender in STEM exist, and if so, how do they vary between black and white women both explicitly and implicitly?

First, after surveying a range of university students, O’Brien and her team found that the difference in the number of men and women in STEM majors was larger among white students than among black ones. Black women reported more interest in STEM fields than white women, O’Brien said, which the researchers had hypothesized before starting the analysis because of what earlier surveys had found.

But when O’Brien and her colleagues conducted their own surveys, the results surprised them. University students were asked a series of explicit, straightforward questions about whether they thought particular fields were "masculine," and white and black women had similar answers. But when they were asked to take an implicit association test, designed to tap into subjects’ unconscious stereotypes, the outcomes were different; as a whole, white women were much more likely to associate STEM professions with men than were black women. This means that black women were less likely to internalize the stereotype that STEM fields were predominantly male. And surveys of men revealed the same trend:  Black males were less likely than their white counterparts to assume that STEM fields were more masculine.

Previous research in this field helps explain how internalized stereotypes can affect women’s identity and performance. Women in fields they believe to be predominantly masculine are subject to stereotype threat, a dilemma in which females feel that they will be confirming negative assumptions about their gender if they don’t perform as well as their male colleagues on tests. The depressing state of affairs is that, when women feel that they have to represent their entire gender or feel alone in their fields, they actually do score lower on tests. One study found that when women were told their performance represented all females in that field, they faltered on more difficult math tests, but when the stereotype threat was lowered, they did just fine. These situations can have real effects on women in STEM fields, who may get discouraged from pursuing them further." Women don’t like math as much if they have strong stereotypes [about the field]," O'Brien said.

O’Brien’s results imply that black and white women are exposed to the same stereotypes because they answered the same on the explicit test." But the results kind of suggest that the difference may be in how they internalize them," O’Brien said.

So why don’t black women internalize the stereotypes as much? Stephanie Rowley, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, thinks it starts early, stemming from how black parents treat their daughters versus their sons."Within black families we’re finding that parents tend to be very concerned about black boys,"Rowley said. One of Rowley’s own studies found that black parents expected their sons to perform worse in school than their daughters, even when boys’ grades were actually higher. "Parents don’t want to push black boys as hard," she said, "not because they think they can’t handle it, but they fear the effects of failure. They don’t want to set [boys] up for failure, and they fear putting their sons in these environments where they may not be supported or welcomed." This comes from parents’ desire to protect their sons, she said.

But black parents send their daughters the opposite message. "What’s happening with black girls is that their parents are seeing them as strong and efficacious and capable, so [they’re] pushing them into whatever it is they want to do and find interesting," Rowley said. Peers and teachers see black girls as smart and less likely to get in trouble in comparison to black boys. Giving black girls the confidence to pursue any field at an early age may make them more immune to the stereotypes they’re exposed to in adolescence and beyond.

Of course, internal stereotypes aren’t the only reason women are underrepresented in STEM; the biases perpetuated by people and institutions can lead to discrimination. In one well-known 2012 study, scientists were given resumes of two applicants for a lab manager position. The resumes, in truth, were identical, only the gender of the applicant had changed. "Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant," the study reads. Another study published in January found that men were much more likely to be hired to conduct a math-related task, even when the employer was told that female applicants had performed well on similar tasks in the past.

To combat these internalized stereotypes, O’Brien emphasizes the importance of role models for women in STEM. "Role models can inoculate women against pressures of stereotypes,"she said. "If I see a successful woman in the sciences, it takes the pressure off a little, it means I’m not carrying the burden for all women."

Rowley suggests that teachers need to be more aware of their own biases to be able to reach every student in the most effective way. Knowing their own patterns with students in the classroom and gaining tools to articulate these biases are big steps toward eradicating them.

O’Brien agrees. "One of the biggest issues with how most people think about stereotypes—they think it’s intentional," she said. "But actually, if you don’t do anything, you will hold stereotypes, and it’s something you have to fight against, especially as educators."

O’Brien knows her study isn’t perfect; she would have liked to have surveyed more women overall, and of other ethnicities as well. The survey also didn’t ask women about their socioeconomic class, so that relationship is still foggy. She hopes to explore this element in future studies.

"Over the past five years, one of the shifts I’ve seen [in this national conversation about STEM] is a focus on underrepresented groups in general, more than just gender," O’Brien said. "I think that’s a great shift because some of the factors that influence the underrepresentation of different groups will vary from those that affect women."