Father’s Day special: Dr. Andrew Baron on science, gender, and parenting

FathersDay_2_770X300

Fatherhood is “a constant game of learning, improving and adapting to each new challenge you face,” says Dr. Andrew Baron.

Professor Andrew Baron, father and child psychologist, is director of both the UBC Social Cognitive Development Lab and the Living Lab at Science World. Under his direction, these labs explore the development of social cognition in young children. In anticipation of Father’s Day, we asked Dr. Baron a few questions about fatherhood, gender roles, and the unique impact that parents can have on their children’s development.

What can parents – particularly fathers – gain or learn from your research?

cropped-Baron_Psych_Web.jpg

Dr. Andrew Baron

That they’re important, too! A recent study in collaboration with Dr. Toni Schmader and two graduate students in the program, Kate Block and lead author Alyssa Croft, was conducted in the Living Lab at Science World exploring the parental transmission of gender role beliefs and goals. We discovered that fathers’ own gender stereotypes about career paths influence how their daughters think about their own future goals. That is, the more their fathers endorsed traditional gender stereotypes, the more their daughters reported aspiring to pursue gender typical roles when they get older, such as homemaking. We also found that the more dads performed traditionally female tasks such as cleaning and cooking around the house, the more their daughters reported feeling free to choose non-traditional gender activities and career path pursuits – for example, they could see themselves working in a professional career when they got older.

Separate from this work, I think another important research finding is that parents play a significant role in indirectly communicating values about gender roles. For example, when a child comes home and shares something they did that day, they’ll notice the differential amount of engagement a parent shows with the different activities they share. So, if a son comes home and describes an art activity and a sports activity – if a parent shows much more engagement with the latter – asking more questions, emoting more, relating more, the child will interpret this as a sign that this behavior is rewarded more, approved of more, and generally more desired by the parent. This can lead the child to abandon pursuing the other, typically less gender typical, activity, even if he or she happens to be equally or more interested in that activity.

We also have a study examining how early children become aware of gender stereotypes about academic ability. We’re finding that by 3 to 4 years of age, children are developing stereotypes about which gender is better at math, and this knowledge can actually influence how they perform on a math test – for example, if kids think their gender is better at math, that can lead them to perform better on a math test. In primary school, we know that this reverses to an extent – if kids think their gender is worse at math, they’ll start to underperform on a math test. We’re now conducting studies to better understand the root cause of these effects.

Are you currently doing any research that relates to parenting?

Right now, we’re looking at parental reports of their children’s behavior and interests in gender typical and atypical tasks, as well as parents’ own assessments of their child’s interest and performance in school. We’re also measuring children’s attitudes and beliefs about school to better understand how to foster greater STEM engagement among both genders.

How can we get more girls interested in STEM fields?

I find the most shocking finding is an observation of the families who visit the Living Lab at Science World. We test infants as young as 3 to 4 months of age and notice that for children 0 to 2 years old, we get 26% more males than females participating. This suggests to me that parents are making a concerted effort to bring sons but not daughters to Science World at this young age. In other words, before kids can even say “I want to go to Science World”, parents seems to be thinking that it’s not where their daughter would want to go.

This type of reasoning is an example of how parents can make choices that can steer kids down different paths, providing opportunities to reinforce engagement with some activities at the expense of others. Even among children aged 3 to 10, we see a gender gap, albeit smaller, with 8% more boys coming to Science World. Of course, this is also when school groups are starting to come in, and birthday parties are being had.

To foster greater interest in STEM, we as parents have to create opportunities to expose daughters more to it, and to share stories of accomplished female scientists. Exposure to individuals who are counter the cultural stereotype about gender and science does a lot to change the beliefs we hold about who can become a scientist. If you are sending your kid to a camp, consider a science camp. Positive and sustained reinforcement is the best way to show your child that this is a path they can choose to pursue. Much like how we have children try a new vegetable or other food at mealtime because we think the exposure is good, so too can we ask them to try a new activity to see what might spark their interest in STEM.

Do you have any pieces of advice for new or soon-to-be fathers?

Rest up now! It can be tiring.

More generally, be aware that your child will naturally look up to you, looking for your approval. Your child will pick up on both the messages both direct (like language) and indirect (like behaviour) that you send regarding the interest they show in different activities. Create opportunities for them to be exposed to gender atypical activities, and be supportive wherever they express curiosity and interest.

Since you’re a father yourself, would you like to share anything you’ve personally learned from fatherhood?

No matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes. That’s okay. It’s a constant game of learning, improving and adapting to each new challenge you face – which often changes with each year of life.

-Katie Coopersmith