How gendered beliefs funnel women away from science and engineering

Feb 17, 2011 By Susan Fisk
Tech career aspirations for women have stalled. Credit: comunicaciones

Women earned only 18% of all Computer Science degrees and made up less than 25% of the workers in engineering- and computer-related fields in 2009. These statistics stand in stark contrast to the gains they have achieved in law, medicine, and other areas of the workforce. While this dearth of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is often attributed to lack of innate ability or desire on the part of women, the director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, sociology professor Shelley Correll, sees this explanation as incomplete. And she offers a competing one: stereotypes.

During her recent talk, “How Gender Influence Emerging Career Aspirations,” Correll detailed the ways in which negative stereotypes about women can hinder their performance, depress their self-assessments of ability, and bias the evaluations made of them by key decision makers. She asserts that the combination of these effects can subtly influence women’s aspirations and career decisions, funneling them away from degrees and careers in male-dominated STEM subjects.

Correll explained that extensive empirical research on stereotype threat has demonstrated that if a person is exposed to a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong (e.g. women, Asians, African-Americans), they will then perform worse on tasks related to the stereotype. This is problematic for women in the STEM fields, as there are many societal beliefs about how women do not have strong mathematical ability and about how men make better engineers and scientists. Thus, if you tell women that they generally score lower on math and spatial tests than men, they actually score lower on those tests than they would have had the stereotypes not been made salient.

This has significant implications for real-world situations; for instance, researchers found that having women indicate their gender before taking the AP Calculus exam was enough to trigger stereotype threat and significantly suppress their scores. Researchers calculated that if the gender question were moved to the end of the exam, 4,700 more women in the United States would have received AP Calculus credit that year.

In addition to decreased performance, Correll’s own research shows that negative stereotypes can lower self-assessments of ability and lead individuals to judge their performance by a harsher standard. In a laboratory experiment Correll performed, male and female students completed a ‘contrast sensitivity’ task, in which they had to determine whether a given image was composed of more black or white squares. Unbeknownst to the subjects, ‘contrast sensitivity’ is a bogus task: there is no correct answer, as all images have the same amount of black and white. However, this allowed Correll to give all subjects the same score and to control the stereotypic beliefs associated with ‘contrast sensitivity’ performance.

She found that when subjects were told that men had higher ‘contrast sensitivity’ ability, women rated their aptitude lower (even though all participants were given the same score), held their performance up to higher standards, and reported lower interest in entering fields requiring skill in ‘contrast sensitivity’ than men. According to Correll, these effects make women less likely to enter STEM fields because they are less likely to, “… believe they have the skills necessary for that career in order to develop preferences for the career.”

However, when subjects were told that woman and men had the same ‘contrast sensitivity’ ability, these disparities disappeared and there were no gender differences in ratings of aptitude, assessments of competence, or interest in fields requiring ‘contrast sensitivity’ ability. This demonstrates the powerful effects of negative stereotypes on the psyche. Beyond diminishing performance, stereotypes decrease self-assessments of ability, lowering the likelihood that women will enter STEM fields.

But how can change occur when gender stereotypes are everywhere? The first thing to keep in mind is that these effects are situational. For this reason, Correll says it is important to avoid the knee-jerk reaction that women should to be fixed, and to focus instead on organizations. “We need to understand that stereotypes affect not only people’s own judgments of their competence, but they also affect the judgments of others.” For instance, an experimental study on the evaluation of engineering internship applicants found that the same resume was judged by a harsher standard if it had a female, versus a male, name.

Correll, who has advised organizations as diverse as Facebook, the National Science Foundation, and Cornell University on how to attract and retain women, named three key things that organizations can do to affect change. First, they can control the messages they are sending, by making sure there are no negative gendered beliefs operating in the organization. Second, they can make performance standards unambiguous and communicate them clearly because, “When people don’t know what to do, gender stereotypes fill in the gaps.” Last, organizations can hold gatekeepers in senior management accountable for reporting on gender disparities in hiring, retention and promotion of employees.

Correll remains optimistic about increasing the representation of in STEM fields: “We can affect interest if we can figure out what’s causing people to be less interested.”

Explore further: Study finds that employees who are open about religion are happier

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Taking care of business shouldn't be just for men

May 22, 2008

Studies reveal that in the dog-eat-dog, look-out-for-No. 1, highly competitive business world, only the aggressive, risk-taking alpha male can expect to succeed as an entrepreneur. That statement may sound sexist, but it ...

Study finds 'masculine' women get more promotions at work

Jan 27, 2011

Women who demonstrate stereotypical masculine traits should be mindful of their behavior if they want to get ahead in the workplace. That is the finding of researchers at George Mason University and Stanford University who ...

How stereotypes can lead to success

Apr 22, 2008

Stereotypes can boost as well as hinder our chances of success, according to psychologists from the University of Exeter and St Andrews University. Writing in the new edition of Scientific American Mind (out in the UK 22 ...

Recommended for you

Consumer loyalty driven by aesthetics over functionality

11 hours ago

When designing a new car, manufacturers might try to attract consumers with more horsepower, increased fuel efficiency or a lower price point. But new research from San Francisco State University shows consumers' loyalty ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

geokstr
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 17, 2011
Another leftist feminist "sociology" professor who sees chauvinism as the root cause of all the evils of the world. Like Title IX is doing for sports, once they can force all fields to be perfectly represented by all 18 known and theoretical genders, the Workers Utopia will be all but assured.

Another result of your "Stimulus" at work, and just as shovel-worthy.
nuge
5 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2011
Apparently in Iran, 70% of science and engineering students at university are women.

h ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_in_Iran

Go figure.
gwrede
1 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2011
While this dearth of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is often attributed to lack of innate ability or desire on the part of women, the director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, sociology professor Xxxx Xxxx, sees this explanation as incomplete.
How many would guess off-hand that the professor is a woman? QED. Some of these people aren't satisfied until 50% of the students are girls.

OK, let's go their way. Let's make a law that says, there have to be an equal number of women in /every/ profession. And where there's only one, split it a year each. So we'd have a female president every other year.

Of course, that includes professions like midwives, too. And if a mother-to-be has a problem with a male one, she can just stuff it.

Yes, let's make Mz Shelley Correll happy, no matter what it costs society, whether regular people like it or need it, or whether normal women are comfortable with it.
dollymop
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2011
Try not to be too dorky. Of course engineering is not gender specific. Most jobs can be done by men or women. We are interested in job results. Take the tests without any pre-questions about who is taking it and grade on results. Whoever passes, passes. I want a smart and careful engineer designing bridges thousands of people use, and I could care less if they are male or female.
bugmenot23
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2011
In two engineering colleges in texas that I have attended, I have seen several examples of a male and female turning in exact duplicate work. In each instance, the woman has either had equal or higher scoring due to their name at the top. A higher score result occurred more often than equal score.

I have a feeling that MLK was right. The more we make a distinction between groups, the worse off everyone will be.
ZoeBrain
5 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2011
I'm almost the perfect experiment. I'm an Engineer, also Intersexed with a rare condition that causes an apparent "natural sex change" from M to F (most go from F to M, and they're rare enough). But Transsexuals are in a similar situation, psychologically if not biologically (the change went the right way for me.. it doesn't always).

Anyway, I've seen things from both sides.

Due to innate differences, the number of women in Engineering should be about 30% if all other things were equal. Yes, there are statistical differences in cognitive processes - more to do with interest than ability, but both play a role. Individuals differ, men are taller than women, but some women are taller than most men for example.

But they're not 30%. More like 10%. 8% at the University I teach at.

TLDR version: the Feminists are right on this one. Ask anyone in Engineering or the Sciences who has transitioned, *in either direction*.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.