Many teachers herald exceptional female scientists, hoping to show students that the scientific canon is not strictly a boys' club. Those lessons surely come with good intentions, but they may do more harm than good, because they suggest to girls and young women that the sciences are almost exclusively for men.
“Educators should be careful to not present these women as ‘token’ examples that might further emphasize the scarcity of women in science,” says David Miller, a doctoral student at Northwestern University and lead author of a study on gender and science. “Students need to see examples beyond Marie Curie to accurately form their beliefs about who pursues science.”
A website set up to collect data for the study, which Miller co-authored with professors Alice Eagly (Northwestern) and Marcia Linn (University of California, Berkeley), received questionnaire responses from almost 350,000 people from 66 countries.
Even in countries, such as Argentina and Bulgaria — where women account for about half of students studying science and working as researchers — stereotypes endured which held men to be more closely associated with science than women are, the study found. (In the study, “science” was defined as “biology, physics, chemistry, math, geology, astronomy and engineering.”)
It also measured both explicit and implicit stereotypes. For the former, respondents were asked how much they associate science with males or females, and for the latter, participants were asked to quickly correlate certain words, such as “math” or “physics,” with words like “boy” or “man.” Respondents were asked to associate words very quickly — in a more instinctual, rather than deliberate way — and the researchers studied respondents' tendency to pair certain terms with a particular gender more naturally than others.
Miller and his co-authors found that many respondents were likelier to associate the sciences with men and the humanities with women. That stereotype could spell difficulties for women applying for jobs in the sciences or seeking raises.
“These stereotypes often can cause negative outcomes, like hiring biases in some contexts, but this relationship is complex,” Miller says, noting that some studies have suggested that tenure-track hiring biases, in some contexts, actually favor women.
Boosting interest in STEM fields among girls, women
When she reviews the findings of Miller’s study, Cheryl Schrader, the chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri — and the first woman to lead that school in its 145-year history — isn’t surprised to find that both explicit and implicit gender stereotypes exist in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Those need to change to ensure that there is more diversity in the sciences.
“Tremendous efforts have been made in recent years to encourage more interest in STEM among girls and women, but clearly more work needs to be done in this regard,” she says.
Missouri S&T, for example, now enjoys record enrollments of women students, according to Schrader, but she admits that the proportion of STEM (21 percent) and engineering (18 percent) majors at the university who are women remains low. The school, she adds, is striving to boost those numbers.
Notable among the study findings are that gender-science stereotypes are weaker in countries with larger proportions of women majoring and working in the sciences, but that the United States still lags behind many countries, Schrader says.
By far, the study's largest sample size came from the U.S., which represented more than 70 percent of respondents; the next largest respondent groups were Canada (5 percent) and the United Kingdom (4 percent). More than 50 responses from any given country were required for it to be included in the results.
Among the countries whose average implicit and explicit stereotypes were lower (i.e. less troubling) than that of the U.S., according to data Miller provided, are: Italy, Iran, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Spain and Portugal.
“This tells us that there is room to grow, and that we, too, can open up opportunities for women in exciting, rewarding, and important careers,” Schrader says. “Seeing more women STEM majors and successful women role models will help change perceptions for everyone.”
Although colleges and universities must be part of the solution, the re-education needs to start earlier, according to Schrader. “Universities need to partner with educators across the educational spectrum beginning in elementary school to highlight and disseminate women’s achievements in STEM,” she says.
Takeaways for parents, aspiring scientists
Parents and teachers need to convey to young women early on that there are no limitations on what subjects they can study and what career paths they can and should pursue, according to Schrader.
“It’s also important for parents and teachers to provide role models to girls — via profiles, stories, discussion, and in-person — so that they can see others who have been successful in science, engineering, and related disciplines.” Schrader sees herself as a role model in this regard, she says.
Loree Lewis, who graduated last December with an undergraduate degree in biology from University of California, Santa Barbara, hasn't been told explicitly or implicitly that she, as a woman, can't study science. But a roommate who studied at a university in the Midwest told her that she has observed an uneven common sentiment that women who drop out of science majors aren't smart enough to cut it, while a man who drops out has "found his true calling."
In her biology classes, Lewis found a pretty even balance between men and women (both students and professors), but in chemical and mechanical engineering classes, men dominate the class. "There would be a classroom of 20 guys and two girls," she says.
She sees the study's findings in a broader context. There are, she says, widespread misperceptions that powerful and demanding, including law and business, are less accessible to women. She also isn't convinced about some of the study's declared takeaways.
"When we would learn about science history, we would learn about the big females. We would also learn about the big names that were males. Of course, way back when there were more males," she says. "There are a large number of very, very respectful females [in science]."
And as far as opportunities for women in science, there are broader, systemic stereotypes in her experience. "It's a problem that women don't see science as a career option. You're taught to think, 'Oh. If you like people, you should be a counselor.' You can like people and work at a lab bench next to people. But it's also high-powered attorneys. Who runs the biggest law firms? It's men," she says. "I think it's a broader issue than just science. It's women having full-fledged careers."
Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was recently published by Cascade Books.