How teachers’ unconsicous biases impact girls

by Feb 16, 20183Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Education, Gender Balance, Women in STEM

 A woman’s career choice can be rooted in her teachers’ unconscious biases

If teachers’ unconscious biases impact the number of girls taking STEM subjects shouldn’t we be doing more about it?

A global and widely acknowledged problem in STEM is the under representation of women in these sectors in the workplace. High school students selecting science and tech subjects is at an all-time low. As such, governments and corporates alike are trying to come up with creative ideas to bring women  into scientific fields. There are a number of theories around this. They especially focus on childhood and the way girls and boys are exposed to gender stereotyping, both in the home and in our wider cultures. But one area of focus that is becoming increasingly powerful is the impact of teachers’ unconscious biases on the subject choices of their pupils.

Certainly parenting patterns and some toy-makers discourage girls from studying math and science. This brilliant ad is for GoldieBlox. It is a start-up toy company that sells games and books to encourage girls to become engineers. But then again, so could their teachers.

As early as primary school

The pipeline for women to enter maths and science occupations starts way before girls are choosing subjects for their senior years in high school. The likelihood of  teachers’ unconscious bias around girls and science at junior levels in the educational process could make a critical impact. It could drastically increase the number of women who enter fields in tech and engineering. These are some of the fastest growing and highest paying. Google, Apple and Facebook, among others, revealed that fewer than 20% of technical employees are women.

In the United States, girls studying computer science make up  18.5 percent of the high school students who take the Advanced Placement exam. At university level the number of female students drops to 12%. The situation in the UK is equally bleak, with similar levels of male domination. Only 15% of Engineering graduates are female. 19%  graduate in Computer Studies and 38% in Maths.

If you are looking to strengthen your company’s female talent pipeline, 3Plus can help you. We offer professional help with Executive Search and Diversity Recruitment.


Teachers' unconscious biases


Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that elementary school teachers’ unconscious biases significantly influence female students’ academic choices later on. According to researchers Dr. Edith Sand, an economist at the Bank of Israel and an instructor at TAU’s Berglas School of Economics, and Prof. Victor Lavy, a professor at Hebrew University and University of Warwick in England, the role of teachers’ unconscious biases is a key factor explaining the divergence of boys’ and girls’ academic preferences.

“It isn’t an issue of discrimination but of unconscious discouragement,” said Dr. Sand. “This discouragement, however, has implications. The track to computer science and engineering fields, which report some of the highest salaries, tapers off in elementary school.”

The study

The research was carried out on three groups of students in Israel. They ranged from sixth grade through to the end of high-school. The students were given two exams. The first was graded by objective scorers who did not know their names. The second was graded by instructors who did know them. The researchers concluded that in maths and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ skills and underestimated the girls’ abilities. This then had long-term implications for students’ attitudes toward these subjects. In maths, the findings confirmed that the girls outscored the boys in the test that was scored anonymously. When the papers were assessed by teachers who knew the pupils, the boys outscored the girls. The effect was not the same for tests in non-maths or science-related subjects.

Long term impact

The researchers also found that discouragement from teachers in math or science wound up lowering students’ confidence in other subjects at school. This again shows the potential importance of nods of encouragement.

An  important finding in this research shows that the unconscious biases of teachers as early as primary school, can ultimately impact the career choices students make. This includes whether they study STEM subjects to an advanced level. If you are a teacher or even if you are not and want to establish if you might have gender biases around science, please take the Harvard Implicit Bias test on this very subject.

Unconscious biases don’t just affect school pupils. 3Plus can help make your workplace treat everyone equally with our Managing Unconscious Bias workshops.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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Dates for the Diary


September 9th - Podcast recording Talkpush -  Discussion recruitment for inclusive workplaces
September  21st -  ENGIE Gender bias in Performance Assessment online
October 26th - Banque de Luxembourg Préjugés sexistes dans le processus de recrutment.



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