The frailty of gender math and science stereotypes

In our research on gender in the workplace, Matt Huffman, Jessica Pearlman and I have found that the gender gap in pay, and the level of gender segregation, are lower in places with more women in management. We treated this mainly as a question of manager behavior — were women discriminating less? But women might also perform better when their bosses are women. That’s a question that has been raised with regard to role models in math and science, where the small number of female professionals and professors is a big issue.

A new study from psychology tried to see whether interaction with female advanced students and teachers brought benefits to women in college. As is their wont, the psychologists, Jane Stout and colleagues at UMass, described several experiments briefly in one paper.

The gender at the head of the class

First, women in college majoring in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) were asked to complete a questionnaire and math test by a facilitator posing as an advanced graduate student in math. Half met a female facilitator, half met a male facilitator. Would this brief interaction with a role model make a difference? Yes.

[when] women who were pursuing STEM majors interacted with an advanced female peer who had expertise in math, they expressed more positive implicit attitudes toward math, showed more implicit identification with math, and increased their effort on a very difficult math test compared with others who interacted with an advanced male peer.

Later, the researchers (working with their math department) studied 100 STEM-major students randomly assigned to math courses taught by male professors with male teaching assistants, or female professors with female teaching assistants — in each case teaching the same material with the same exams. The professors — who did not know the purpose of the study — were also matched on teaching skills, career stage and English proficiency.

They found that female students with female instructors had more positive feelings toward math, more implicit identification with the subject of math, and higher self-efficacy (they predicted higher grades for themselves). Women also identified much more strongly with the female professors, not surprisingly, and participated more in class by asking and answering questions. However, neither men’s nor women’s final grades were actually affected by the instructors’ gender (that would be too easy).

These kinds of interventions just scratch the surface of what might be different if girls and women had more exposure to and interaction with women teaching and leading in math and science fields.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The frailty of gender math and science stereotypes

  1. Ness Blackbird

    Hey wait — how can they use “facilitators” posing as advanced graduate students instead of REAL role models — people who actually know the answers to the questions and have all the many important characteristics of their field.

    Couldn’t they find female grad students? 😦

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    • I got the impression the facilitators were just introducing the test, getting them set up, etc., just letting it be known they were advanced grad students rather than actually modeling any roles.

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  2. Ness Blackbird

    Doh! That’s exactly what grad students do — in their own, specific, personal, grad-studently way. It’s a role.

    A soc grad student says, “OK, we’re going to take a test. Don’t open your booklets until you are told. Please use a sharp #2 pencil.” They’re clothes are color-coordinated.

    A physics grad student wanders in in blue jeans with paint on them, and says. “Did you realize that the surface area of a painted wall increases in log/2 as the wall is exposed to sun, and baseballs, and the previously painted surface approaches fractal complexity?”

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  3. Pingback: Undoing gender math stereotypes « Family Inequality

  4. Pingback: The Occupations of the Top 1%; Undoing Math Gender Stereotypes;Database of World Demographic Info « Welcome to the Doctor's Office

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