Largest ever study into gender stereotypes in science

Friday, 22 May, 2015

A study involving 350,000 people, from 66 nations, has found that the stereotypical association of men (rather than women) with science is prevalent across the world.

The study was conducted by Northwestern University through a website called Project Implicit, which asked participants to rate how much they associated science with males or females. Another measure assessed how quickly they associated science words such as ‘math’ and ‘physics’ with male words such as ‘boy’ and ‘man’. Neither measure asked whether participants thought men or women were more competent in science.

Stereotypes were found to be strong in nations such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, which are ironically known for having strived for gender equity. “In fact,” said lead author David I Miller, “Scandinavian nations generally had stronger stereotypes than the US.”

Miller explained that the results made sense when the team looked closer at who pursued science in these nations. He noted, “Dutch men outnumbered Dutch women by nearly four to one among both science majors and employed researchers. The strong stereotypes in the Netherlands, therefore, reflect the reality of male dominance in science there.”

Gender-science stereotypes were typically weaker in nations with more female science majors and researchers - although they did persist in nations such as Argentina and Bulgaria, where women make up roughly half of science majors in universities and employed researchers.

Prior studies have shown that gender stereotypes can contribute to biased hiring decisions, according to Miller. In many contexts these favour men, he said, though a recent experiment reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that faculty prefer to hire women over men among highly qualified tenure-track applicants.

Research suggests that experiences in university may be one key to changing gender-science biases. According to study co-author Alice H Eagly, “Stereotypes should erode more quickly for individuals who see many female science majors in their classes, for instance.”

Science instruction might help reduce gender-science stereotypes by engaging students in analysing varied examples of female scientists, added study co-author Marcia C Linn. She said students often struggle to integrate messages about success in science with their gender and academic identities, citing a recent study in Frontiers in Psychology.

“Educators should present examples beyond Marie Curie to help shape students’ beliefs about who pursues science,” she said. “Students reconsider who pursues science when they can compare examples of female scientists and reflect on their beliefs.”

Eagly said the study’s results suggest gender-science stereotypes should slowly weaken as people see more women in science. She stated, “Changing these persistent beliefs likely requires seeing female scientists across diverse sources such as news articles, television shows and textbooks.”

The study has been published online, along with an interactive table providing comprehensive rankings for all 66 nations.


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