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.  

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],"  Laurie O’Brien, a philosophy professor at Tulane University in New Orleans 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.

Read the full article "Black Girls Stand a Better Chance in STEM" at The Atlantic.