Will it Sink or Float? Examining Gender Differences in Science-task Persistence in Childhood and the Role of Gender-Related Stereotypes and Beliefs

Nicole J. Stucke

Advisor: Sabine Doebel, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Thalia Goldstein, Timothy Curby

Johnson Center, #327, Meeting Room C
April 09, 2024, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


Gender differences in STEM engagement may have origins in early childhood, as young children have been found to hold gender-science stereotypes (e.g., Master, 2021) and girls as young as four years of age have been found to persist less than boys on tasks that involve science concepts (Gilligan et al., 2023; Kumar et al., 2023; Shachnai et al., 2022). However, some studies have not found this gender effect (Rhodes et al., 2020) and for many studies, the science task was administered in a digital format and thus modality was a confounding variable. The current preregistered study aimed to clarify these findings by testing whether girls persisted less than boys (n = 108; mean age = 6.45 years) on an ecological table-top “sink or float” science task with 30 trials and exploring whether holding gender-science stereotypes predicted gender differences in persistence. The study also explored additional experiences and skills that could affect persistence, including executive function skills and science knowledge and experience. Mixed-effects survival models were used to estimate the risk of quitting the science task on a given trial of the task, predicted from gender, accuracy on a given trial, average accuracy on the task, and age, with random intercepts for subjects. No main effects were found for gender or age. Follow-up Bayesian analyses indicated the evidence supported the null hypothesis that there were no effects of these variables on task persistence. Lower average accuracy on the task was related to an increased risk of quitting. Exploratory analyses indicated a significant interaction between gender and age, such that for boys only, there was a decrease in persistence with age, contrary to what was expected. Boys and girls alike were aware of and held gender-science stereotypes favoring boys, and while boys became less biased with age, girls became more biased, consistent with previous research. There was no evidence, however, that holding such stereotypes predicted gender differences in persistence. A follow-up Bayesian analysis supported the null hypothesis of no interaction between gender-science stereotypes and gender to predict persistence. There was also no evidence that children’s science knowledge, science experience, or executive function skills predicted persistence. Together, these findings raise questions about the meaning of previous research related to gender differences in science-task persistence in early childhood.