We’ve heard it a million times: Men outnumber women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) fields.
But even though women have made progress in the past few decades, they still make up less than one quarter of the STEM workforce in the U.S., according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report from 2011.
There are many reasons that women drop out of STEM studies, including everything from being called a nerd and not getting enough positive reinforcement, to other things like lack of childcare and the competitive nature of the field.
But a new study, conducted by Katie Van Loo and Robert Rydell from Indiana University, published Nov. 8 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, provides additional evidence that stereotypes are holding women back.
The researchers showed that women in a maths setting often experience something called stereotype threat — when aware of the existence of a negative gender stereotype, in this case “men are better at maths than women,” women worry that their performance will confirm the stereotype.
When they worry about their performance, their actual performance drops.
The stereotype that men are better at maths than women is so ingrained in our culture that women feel stereotype threat — and as a result, perform more poorly in maths — just from watching a man take a dominant role in a maths study group.
How the scientists figured this out.
The study included 133 women and 101 men in college. Each participant watched a short scripted video with actors who were forming a study group — either a general study group or a maths specific study group. Each video either had a dominant man, a dominant woman, or the interaction was neutral with no member of the group taking on a dominant role.
In each video the dominant actor had a more relaxed posture, used more expressive gestures, and gave commands like “you need to …” to establish their authority.
After watching the video, the participants got 20 minutes to solve 30 GRE-level maths problems. The women in the study who watched the male-dominant maths video before answering the questions performed much worse than the women who watched the other videos (including the male-dominated general study group).
You can see the impact of the videos — either in a maths-specific study group or a general study group — on the women’s maths performance in the graph below:
The researchers didn’t see a significant drop in performance in maths after the women watched a general study group video (even when a man took control of that group). That means it wasn’t the subject of the study group that threatened them, but specifically a man taking control of the maths group.
The men’s maths scores did not show any significant difference based on which video they watched.
After answering the maths questions, the participants were asked how much they agreed with the statement: “I worry that my ability to perform well on maths tests is affected by my gender.”
Again, you can see how much impact the male-dominant video had on the answers to this question in the graph below. The threat-based concern measurement on the y-axis shows how much the female participants agreed that gender affects maths performance.
The researchers conclude that “encouraging equality between men and women in maths settings should protect other women from stereotype threat.” They hope that encouraging more equal interactions between men and women, both in and out of the classroom, will help more women successfully enter STEM fields.
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