Believing is half the battle
Although women now make up more than 1/2 of college students in the U.S., there is still a persistent gap in the number of women in the sciences, particularly in physics, and related fields like engineering and math. Even in biology, where women are well represented at the undergraduate and graduate level, by the time you look at college faculty there is still a strong bias towards men. It’s pretty clear that psychological factors play a role in these gaps. Our culture is infused with the notion that women (and many minorities) are not as good at science as men are, and this affects their performance. So two new papers I’ve just read are kind of heartening in showing that this cultural effect might be easier to shift than I would have thought.
The more relevant paper is from an introductory physics class in Colorado, a class where women have historically underperformed men. The professors did something which seemingly should make no difference – twice near the beginning of the semester, they had students spend 15 minutes picking a value that was personally important to them (say respecting their friends, or staying close with their family) and writing about it. That’s it. A control group of students did another writing exercise about values, but not personal values, for the same length of time. The professors then compared the two groups of students in terms of class grades, and improvement on a standard physics assessment over the course of the semester.
The control group showed the pattern they expected. Men improved more than women over the semester. But in the group that did the stupid little writing assignment (surely how students thought about it, no?), the gap in learning disappeared. Women improved just as much as men. The effect was strongest in women who had the impression men were better at physics than women were. A bunch more women in that experimental group got B’s instead of C’s in the class. Not bad for 15 minutes of work. The researchers conclude that just reflecting on something personal and positive is enough to change the psychological factors getting in the students way.
Totally unrelated to science education, the physics psychology study reminded me of another study I just read which looked at how women given a bit of extra testosterone behaved when bargaining. It turns out testosterone’s effect is more complicated than our stereotyped view – it’s a social-status hormone that often makes women, at least in this study, more likely to be fair to others than to be aggressive. But if a woman believed she was getting an injection of testosterone rather than a placebo, the inherent effect of testosterone was overriden. Those women who believed they got testosterone (regardless of whether they did) behaved aggressively, just like the stereotype, even though the stereotype is wrong. Although the beliefs triggered in this study are more directly related to the assessment (testosterone to bargaining) than in the physics study (values to forces and electromagnetism), it again shows how a small thought can change behavioral outcomes a lot.
Of course, if every teacher now has students write little essays about personally important values, I bet the effect will diminish quite a bit as students catch on to the manipulation. Nevertheless, there’s a long literature on self-efficacy, how believing in yourself makes a big difference to how well you perform. The encouraging thing with these studies is how little it takes to shift beliefs – it seems that small actions or thoughts can have major effects, meaning that it might not take as huge a shift to get women who have internalized the inferior-at-science stereotype to change their self-image, and suddenly be learning at a much closer rate to others. Or maybe we should just offer placebo injections at the start of our classes and tell students they are getting testosterone.