The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), finds that girls’ interests in math and science are shaped by social and environmental factors. The first finding comes from the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, who studies beliefs about intelligence. She finds that believing in the potential for intellectual growth, in and of itself, improves outcomes.
Dr. Dweck’s research provides evidence that a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset” benefits girls in math and science. The table lays out the differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Individuals with a “fixed mindset” believe that intelligence is static. Because of this, they want to always “look smart” and therefore, tend to avoid challenges, give up easily when they encounter an obstacle, see effort as fruitless, ignore feedback, and can be threatened by others’ success. In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence can be developed. Because of this they want to learn more and, therefore, tend to embrace challenges, persist when they encounter obstacles, see effort as a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and be inspired by the success of others.
Individuals with a fixed mindset are susceptible to a loss of confidence when they encounter challenges, because they believe that if they are truly “smart,” things will come easily to them. If they have to work hard at something, they tend to question their abilities and lose confidence, and they are likely to give up because they believe they are “not good” at the task and believe that because their intelligence is fixed, they will never be good at it.
Individuals with a growth mindset, on the other hand, show a far greater belief in the power of effort, and in the face of difficulty, their confidence actually grows because they believe they are learning and getting smarter as a result of challenging themselves.
These research findings are important for women in STEM, because encountering obstacles and challenging problems is in the nature of scientific work. When girls and women believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence, they are more likely to lose confidence and disengage from science and engineering when they inevitably encounter difficulties in their course work. This is true for all students, but it is particularly relevant for girls in math and science, where negative stereotypes persist about their abilities. Therefore, in math and science, a growth mindset benefits girls.
Here are some recommendations of how can parents and teachers promote a growth mindset:
- Teach children that intellectual skills can be acquired. When girls are taught that their intelligence can expand with experience and learning, they do better on math tests and are more likely to want to continue to study math in the future.
- Praise children for effort. Rather than saying, “Oh, you’re so smart!” when children do something well, say “Wow, you worked really hard at that and you did it!” It is especially important to praise the most able students for their effort. These students have often coasted along, gotten good grades, and been praised for their intelligence and may be the very students who opt out when the work becomes more difficult.
- Highlight the struggle. Communicate to students that we value and admire effort and hard work. This will teach children the values that are at the heart of scientific and mathematical contributions: love of challenge, love of hard work, and the ability to embrace and learn from our inevitable mistakes.
- Talented and gifted programs should send the message that they value growth and learning, not just being “gifted” with intelligence.
Note: much of this text is from the AAUW ppt describing highlights of the Why So Few? report.