Lopsided representation of men over women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines has been a subject of national study and initiatives for years, and one such study about why this exists came to our attention recently via a colleague.
“Problems in the pipeline”, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology in 2008, examines the effect of stereotype threat on girls in mathematic achievement. Stereotype threat is the disruptive effect of stereotypes on the performance of a group. Initially developed to explore the differences between the test scores of Caucasian and African-American students, the research team (Good, Aronson, and Harder) used stereotype threat in their work to examine the performance of women versus men via a college calculus test. Out of 174 participants, some were merely told by the instructor that the test was intended to determine why some individuals were better in math than others. Others were also specifically told that men and women scored equally well on the test. Data sources included calculus scores, course grades, and a mathematics self-efficacy survey.
The test results indicated that even at a high level, women answered fewer questions and scored lower when not told that men and women performed equally well. This occurred despite evidence that all tested women were as well if not more prepared for the test than men, and that their regular course grades were not significantly different compared to those of men. That is, the researchers concluded the only difference between women told that they did as well as men on the test and women who were not told this was the impact of the stress of stereotype threat. It is also of interest to note that both groups of women displayed the same lack of confidence in their answers no matter what they were informed of prior to taking the test. For the researchers, this further reinforced their belief that the weight of stereotypes was being brought to bear, leading to the obstruction of math as potential interests and careers for girls and women alike.
These results underline to us the critical role of the instructor in the classroom and the messages that they send to their students each and every day.