“I think that because it was difficult and it kept being taught to me the same way, I assumed there was something about me.” In our interview with Mayim Bialik, the Big Bang Theory Star (who has a PhD in neuroscience) opened up about her early struggles with science in the classroom, where the implication was often that if science didn’t come quickly, it might not be for you.
Many girls in classrooms hold a similar “fixed mindset,” a perspective in which intelligence is viewed as an inborn, uncontrollable trait. Research shows that individuals with this mindset tend to question their abilities and lose confidence when things don’t come easily.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, frames intelligence as a changeable, malleable attribute that can be developed through effort. When faced with a challenge, students with this mindset show a far greater belief in the power of effort. Their confidence tends to grow in the face of difficulty, because they believe they are learning and getting smarter as a result of a challenge.
A Stanford University study found that for girls in both middle school and college, a growth mindset protects girls and women from the influence of the stereotype threat and the mindset that girls are not as good as boys at math. In the face of the stereotype threat, girls with a growth mindset are more likely to maintain confidence and not succumb to stereotypes, freeing them from the idea that their individual mathematical abilities are fixed.
Dr. Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist who studies both mindsets, says: “Students are getting this message that things come easily to people who are geniuses, and only if you’re a genius do you make these great discoveries. But more and more research is showing that people who made great contributions struggled. And maybe they enjoyed the struggle, but they struggled. The more we can help kids enjoy that effort rather than feel that it’s undermining, the better off they’ll be.”
Stereotypes about girls in STEM have been shown to have a measurable impact on performance and the likelihood for girls to pursue careers in the field. Research also shows that actively countering stereotypes can lead to improvements in math and science. But battling stereotypes takes time. In the meanwhile, teaching girls about the “growth mindset” can help them to achieve in STEM fields even in the face of existing stereotypes.
In the videos below, “Secret Life” ladies discuss how they came to love science, and share their own strategies for motivating the next generation of lady scientists.