The Gender Gap in Science, and the Falsehoods that Keep it Around

By Nick Fontaine


Think of a stereotypical mathematician or engineer: it’s probably a man right? This isn’t a bad assumption, as the overwhelming majority of math, and STEM as a whole, professionals are male. For years this disparity has been explained by stating that men are inherently better at math and visuospatial reasoning (such as reading a map or visualizing three dimensional objects mentally). This still a very wide held belief today, and some people involved in STEM fields even still believe it. If there isn’t an intrinsic hardwired difference in innate math skill, then what could explain the drastic under-representation of women in these fields?


New research from a group of researchers in Spain has attempted to answer this question. A group of male and female students containing both STEM and humanities majors at the Universitat Jaume were asked to do a 3D object mental rotation test. In this test, the participants tried to rotate a shape using a computer to try to match it with a separate shape and identify if the two shapes were the same or different. Before the test, they were either told stereotype-supporting statements (“males will do better”), stereotype-rejecting statements (“females will do better”) or neutral statements (““no gender differences are expected”).The researchers went a step further and provided fake scientific data such as brain scans to drive home these statements.


It was found that the best predictor of score on the test was field of academic study. This means that female STEM majors performed similarly to male STEM majors and female humanities majors performed similarly to male STEM majors. Stereotype-supporting statements reduced the female STEM major participants’ scores slightly, but had a much greater effect on the female humanities majors. This shows that expertise in a field may help mediate the effects of stereotypes. Statements that attempted to nullify the stereotype (“women will do better”) resulted in academic specialization again being the only predictor (Sanchis-Segura, et al., 2018).


This research adds on to the long-held belief that stereotype threat is a large factor keeping women out of STEM fields. If you are a halfway decent and logical person, you would know that women are not inherently worse in scientific realms than men. As a STEM major, I can see this first hand, as the majority of my smartest classmates are women. In fact, other studies have found that cultures in which there is greater gender equality tend to have more women in high level mathematical competitions (Hyde & Mertz, 2009)


All of us need to do a better job at encouraging girls and women to seek their passions in STEM fields. That fact that half of our population is told they are implicitly lesser-than concerning their ability to enter science, arguably one of the most important (and profitable) career paths in the modern world, is a travesty. There is nothing to lose from having more scientists. Maybe if we start respecting women's’ ability to succeed in STEM, we can also apply that equality-based thinking to all aspects of life— which we all know is needed.


References:


Sanchis-Segura, C., Aguirre, N., Cruz-Gómez, Á. J., Solozano, N., & Forn, C. (2018). Do Gender-Related Stereotypes Affect Spatial Performance? Exploring When, How and to Whom Using a Chronometric Two-Choice Mental Rotation Task. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1261. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01261

Hyde, J. S., & Mertz, J. E. (2009). Gender, culture, and mathematics performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(22), 8801-7.

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