Does hidden sexism discourage girls from math and science?

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
March 1 2011 7:04 AM

Psych-Out Sexism

The innocent, unconscious bias that discourages girls from math and science.

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They measured, for instance, how often each student responded to questions posed by professors to the classroom as a whole. At the start of the semester,  11 percent of the female students attempted to answer questions posed to the entire class when the professor was male, and  7 percent of the female students attempted to answer questions posed to the entire class when the professor was female. By the end of the semester, the number of female students who attempted to answer questions posed by a male professor had not changed significantly: Only 7 percent of the women tried to answer such questions. But when classes were taught by a woman, the percentage of female students who attempted to answer questions by the semester's end rose to 46.

The researchers also measured how often students approached professors for help after class. Around 12 percent of the female students approached both male and female professors for help at the start of the semester. The number of female students approaching female professors was 14 percent at the end of the semester. But the number of female students asking for help from a male professor dropped to zero.

Finally, when Stout and Dasgupta evaluated how much the students identified with mathematics, they found that women ended up with less confidence in their mathematical abilities when their teachers were men rather than women. This happened even when women outperformed men on actual tests of math performance.

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Think about that. On objective measures of math performance, these women were outscoring men. But their identification with mathematics was not tied to their interest, determination, or talent. It was connected to whether their teacher was a woman or a man.

These experiments suggest that subtle and unconscious factors skew the "free choices" we make. The career choices of men and women are affected far more by discrimination than by any innate differences between men and women. But it is not the kind of discrimination we usually talk about. We ought to assume that male math professors at the University of Massachusetts were just as committed to teaching young women as they were to teaching young men. And those professors were just as talented as their female counterparts. (The professors and students were not told the purpose of the experiment beforehand, so the female professors and female students couldn't have entered into some kind of pact to boost test scores.)

The traditional model of discrimination, in which people deliberately tip the scales in favor of one group over another, still applies in some cases. There are undoubtedly sexist professors. But overt sexism does not explain these findings. In fact, that model of discrimination might be an obstacle to overcoming the real challenge.

Our reasons for feeling suited to particular professions are only partially—and perhaps tangentially—tied to our interests, determination, and talent. More than three decades ago, psychotherapists at Georgia State University studied why some women, by all objective measures bright and talented, believed they were less gifted than they were. No matter the evidence, they believed they were imposters.

It is true that fewer women than men break into science and engineering careers today because they do not choose such careers. What isn't true is that those choices are truly "free."

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Shankar Vedantam covers the social sciences for NPR. Follow him @HiddenBrain and on Facebook.

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