Does language used for encouragement influence girls’ engagement in science?

Language may play an important role in shaping young girls' perception of science.

Lily Holbrook
21st February 2019
Image from NASA on Flickr

Whether we like it or not, there is a disparity in the number of girls going into science careers compared to boys, with women making up just 23% of the science, technology, engineering and maths workforce in 2017 (WISE).

But why? A recent study published in Psychological Science suggests it could all come down to language. Is it really true that your confidence to pursue a certain career could be ingrained in the way you were brought up?

If I ask you to think about the word ‘science’, initially your thoughts may be drawn to Bunsen burners, safety specs and labs. But in a world where living beacons of knowledge such as Sir David Attenborough exist to inspire us about the world around us, you may equally associate science with the discovery of knowledge about everything in the physical and natural world, from astronomy and botany to psychology and oceanography.

But what thoughts come to mind if I ask you to think about the word ‘scientist’?

The difference may be subtle, but a recent study led by researchers at New York University has found that the language used when encouraging young girls to follow a career in science can have a bigger impact than we might think. Researchers in the study used two key phrases to address girls aged four to nine years old: ‘Let’s do science’ and ‘Let’s be scientists’. They found that when the latter was used, girls were less likely to engage in a science-based game which could have far-reaching consequences for their career aspirations in later life.

In developmental psychology, it is suggested that boys are typically encouraged to seek information and explore the world boldly while girls are praised for playing nicely and exhibiting gentle, proximity-seeking behaviour. This may therefore explain young girls’ lack of confidence in their ability to do science. Due to this lack of confidence, girls may perceive their identity as inconsistent with a scientist’s, deeming it unattainable.

Even if there aren’t any issues with confidence, the word ‘scientist’ may conjure up images of people in white lab coats which is not necessarily all that appealing to young girls. But with a demand for scientists in all fields on the rise, it is increasingly clear that not all scientists wear white coats.

Breaking the stereotype are a number of modern female scientists, making important scientific breakthroughs to inspire a new generation of girls. Cynthia Kenyon, who is working on extending human lives by up to 100 years, Helen Fisher, who discovered that long-term antidepressant use can halt the brain’s ability to fall in love, and Jennifer Doudna, who is revolutionising genetic engineering with her pioneering development of CRISPR technology are all serving to lead the way in their respective fields.

We are living in a changing world and gender roles are shifting.

Understanding the subtle differences in linguistic cues may be the first step in helping us bridge the gender gap in science for the next generation.



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