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Stereotype Threat and the Gender Disparity in Science

There should be no doubt to anyone in the sciences that there is a “gender gap” in the sciences: there are fewer female professors than male professors in most scientific disciplines.  The degree varies across scientific disciplines, I’ve found it strongest in physics, and weakest in math, psychology and biology, but it’s always there and in the same direction.  A recent study shows that the problem is related to women’s perceptions of operating stereotypes in their colleagues: when women perceive that they will be judged as inferior, they often behave in such a way that reinforces the stereotype.  This reminds me of a now-classic study that had young Asian women read articles about their identity, either as female, or as Asian, and then take a math quiz.  When they read about Asian identity, they scored super-high, when they read about female identity, they scored low.

This is a common topic of discussion around my lab, since there are many female graduate students and professors in biology, and we hear all the time of measures to get girls interested in science, increase career advancement and other efforts to make working better for female scientists.  The overall goal is to increase the number of women in science.  However, I’m a little concerned that people don’t pause and ask what’s really going on, or ask why it’s happening.  For example, the lead of the NPR Article on the recent psychological study poses this problem:

Over the years, educators, recruiters and government authorities have bemoaned the gender gap and warned that it can have dire consequences for American competitiveness and continued technological dominance.

Really?  That’s the problem?  We’re not keeping up with Finland?  The reason we need to keep more women in scientific professorships is so that the Japanese won’t be smarter than us?  Not only does that sound kinda hostile to everyone who isn’t American (which is quite a few people), but it paints a nice, simplistic picture over the real problem.

Perhaps the real problem is exactly what the quotation points out: our ridiculously competitive society.  Maybe more women than men figure out earlier on that the goal of their lives shouldn’t be helping America crush Iceland.  A big problem in science is that most scientists believe that the number one goal in life is to be factually correct about everything.  Perhaps more women than men figure out that there are other things that are more important: things like compassion, kindness and generosity.  Is anyone doing research on that gender disparity?  Is anyone running a program to recruit men into kindness rather than insane competitiveness?  No one has tried to recruit me.

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