Subtle Linguistic Cues Increase Girls’ Engagement in Science

Subtle shifts in linguistic cues, such as describing science as an action instead of as an identity, may decrease the gender gap in science among young children.


The gender gap between women and men’s representation in science limits women’s economic and intellectual opportunities. Studies have shown that this gap begins to form in early childhood. Early childhood is when children develop the belief that some variations in human behavior can be the result of fundamental differences between people (e.g., the types of people who eat carrots, versus those who do not), while other variations can be non-essential (e.g., there is an activity of eating carrots that some people may do at some time but not at other times).

In analyzing the language used in children’s shows on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service to describe science, the researchers in this study found that most shows describe science as an identity (e.g., science is something done by people who are “scientists”), rather than as an action (e.g., science is an activity that someone can do or not do).

These subtle shifts in linguistic cues, which describe science as an identity versus an action, may have an effect on encouraging or discouraging children’s participation in science depending on their gender. Researchers devised a series of four experimental trials to test whether using “identity” (be-scientists) or “action” (do-science) language to describe science games had an effect on children’s motivation to participate.


Girls who heard science described as an action were less likely to stop playing a science game than girls who heard science described as an identity.

  • In study 1, 60% of girls in the be-scientists group chose to stop participating in the science game after experiencing setbacks. Only 32% of girls in the do-science group chose to stop participating after experiencing setbacks.
  • In study 2, girls in the do-science group were 56% less likely to stop the science game than girls in the be-scientists group.
  • In study 3, girls in the do-science group completed more rounds of the science game than girls in the be-scientists condition. These effects—participation in the do-science group being associated with greater persistence in science—increased in older groups of girl participants.
  • In study 4, there were no statistically significant results.

The evidence suggests that the reverse is true of boys across all age groups studied (4-9 years old).

  • In some of the trials, boys in the be-scientists group were more likely to persist in playing the science game than boys in the do-science group.
  • In other trials, the subtle shift between using “action” and “identity” language to describe science had no impact on whether boys chose to continue playing the science game.

These effects may be particular to games that are described to children as science games and may not apply when games are described to children as non-science games.

Based on these results, the researchers suspect that identity-based language for describing science may decrease girls’ willingness to engage in science if they have reason to believe that it is an identity category that they may have difficulty becoming a member of—whether based on the social stereotypes they have been exposed to, or based on their beliefs about their own scientific abilities. These results indicate that making the subtle linguistic shift from describing science as an identity to describing science as an action may encourage young girls’ willingness to continue engaging in scientific endeavors.


This study comprised four experimental trials (total sample size = 501) conducted on children aged 4-9 years old in New York City. The study targeted children in this age bracket because that is a time when children are highly influenced by linguistic cues and begin to develop concepts about science and their scientific capabilities.

The participants were recruited through “Pre-K for All” programs, local public schools, children’s museums, and campus laboratories. The purpose of the study was to test the effects of subtle linguistic shifts on young children via science-related games, particularly focusing on whether “identity” language (e.g. being a “scientist” as an identity that people have) or “action” language (e.g. “science” as an action that people do) would yield different effects. In each of the four experiments, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups completing a science game. One group heard language that described science as an identity (the “be-scientists” condition) and the other group heard language that described science as an activity (the “do-science” condition).

In Study 1, children were asked to identify smells of four mystery substances, with two easy-to-identify smells and two hard-to-identify smells. The latter would give them a sense of experiencing setbacks in scientific endeavors. After these four questions, the children were allowed to choose whether they wanted to continue playing the game, with the possibility of continuing for up to 10 additional rounds. The correct answer to each round was not revealed until the children finished all of the rounds. The number of additional rounds that the children decided to participate in (0-10) was interpreted as an indication of their willingness to continue engaging in scientific endeavors after experiencing setbacks in science.

In Study 2, the same experimental procedure was replicated with a different game, in which children were asked to predict whether an object would sink or float in water. Children were allowed to continue for as many additional rounds as they wished.

In Study 3, the same procedures and conditions were repeated as in as Study 1. However, the interaction of three variables—age, gender, and language group—were measured. 

In study 4, children were asked to guess what types of food a particular animal would eat. The game of predicting an animal’s food was described as a “caring” game instead of a “scientific” game. Children were allowed to continue for up to 10 additional trials. The aim of Study 4’s procedure was to test whether the effects of the subtle shifts in linguistic cues differed for scientific versus non-scientific activities.

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