Doing science rather than being scientists more encouraging to girls

Subtle but powerful linguistic cues.


Doing science shows greater persistence in science activities than asking them to be a scientist, especially in girls. This leads to more science engagement than does describe science in terms of identities.

Marjorie Rhodes, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the senior author of the study said, “These effects particularly hold for children who are the target of stereotypes suggesting that they might not be the kind of person who succeeds in science–in this case, girls.”

These findings suggest that efforts to encourage girls to enter science- a field in which they are underrepresented- could benefit from focusing on describing science activity rather than encouraging children to adopt scientific identities, at least in early childhood.

Marjorie Rhodes, an associate professor in NYU‘s Department of Psychology said, “The roots of gender disparities in science achievement take hold in early childhood. This research identifies an element of children’s environments that could be targeted to reduce early gender differences in science behavior among young children.”

“The messaging children often receive through television shows centers on identity rather than action when it comes to science.”

Popular programs more often refer to scientists as a type of person than to science as an activity people do. In other words, these TV shows miss an opportunity to use language that encourages girls in science more effectively.

Scientists conducted four studies with children aged four to nine years old. Here, the children received an introduction to science that described science as an identity (“Let’s be scientists! Scientists explore the world and discover new things!”) or an action (“Let’s do science! Doing science means exploring the world and discovering new things!”).

Children were then asked to complete a new science game designed to illustrate the scientific method. Persistence was measured by how long they continued to play this game.

Notably, girls who were initially asked to “do science” showed more persistence on the subsequent science game than did girls who had been asked to “be scientists.”

The effects of language on boys, by contrast, were more variable. For example, one of their studies found that boys younger than five years of age showed greater persistence in action-oriented language, while those older than five showed higher levels of persistence in identity-oriented language.

Overall, these findings suggest that identity-focused language can undermine persistence in some children as they acquire new skills, particularly when cultural stereotypes lead children to question if they hold the relevant identity.

The study found that using verbs to talk about pro-social actions with children, such as asking them “to help” instead of to “be helpers,” led to more pro-social helping behavior after children experienced setbacks.

The study is published in the journal Child Development.


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.