Women remain persistently underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) positions — a gap that is a big concern among education advocates and is currently the target of a million-dollar diversity push by the National Science Foundation and the White House. Despite increased attention and new diversity initiatives, however, it remains a persistent problem.
New research suggests a reason why: People think women lack the qualities necessary to be a good scientist.
Women, the study shows, are perceived as being primarily “communal” — kinder, warmer, more understanding, and more helpful. Men, on the other hand, were perceived as being more “agentic” — more independent, more ambitious, and more assertive. Agentic traits were also strongly associated with successful scientists.
“It’s a culture where people don’t perceive women as compatible with the traits of scientists,” Dr. Linda Carli, the study’s lead researcher, told ThinkProgress.
This culture may be working to talented female scientists’ detriment. Crucially, although the most common rebuttal to gender diversity initiatives in STEM is that women opt out of the sciences because they lack either ability or confidence, in fact, the women who perform the best in science and math courses are the ones most likely to leave.
Even With Hard Evidence Of Gender Bias In STEM Fields, Men Don’t Believe It’s RealThere’s a growing mountain of evidence that women in the STEM fields face gender bias. This August, for example, female…thinkprogress.org“These are women who are superstars. They’re good at everything. They have options. The women who have the most opportunity to do well, they are the most likely to leave,” said Carli.
“When you ask men why they leave the science, they say they’re struggling, they’re worried about graduating from their courses, from their graduate degrees. Which is a very logical reason to leave. But women are not saying that,” she added. “They’re not happy. They’re disgruntled.”
A recent global study found that women don’t leave the workforce because they want flexibility or because of family demands — they leave because they’re not paid or promoted. This is true in the sciences too. In engineering, for instance, where women earn only 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees, nearly 40 percent of female degree earners end up leaving the field, citing hostile work cultures, limited advancement opportunities, and unsupportive supervisors.
Carli hypothesized that stereotypes about women and science may be the root cause of this prejudice and discrimination. While the masculine coding of science has often been assumed, it hasn’t before been empirically shown.
The gendered stereotype of science
Participants in the study, forthcoming in print from the Psychology of Women Quarterly, were randomly assigned one of three questionnaires and asked to rate a list of traits in terms of how characteristic each was of either an adult man, an adult woman, or a successful scientist. In a second part, participants were given the same task, but were asked to rate the traits of specific scientists, such as successful chemists, psychologists, and computer scientists.
Participants consistently rated women as being more communal, and men and scientists as being more agentic.
“The overall image of successful scientists appears to be one of exaggerated masculinity,” says the article.
The overall image of successful scientists appears to be one of exaggerated masculinity
When participants were asked about the traits of specific classes of scientists, there was still a great perceived similarity between men and most of the professions, but there was also an overlap with perceived feminine traits. The researchers theorize that, especially among their study population of college students, invoking specific types of scientists was more likely to call up the images of specific people — who, regardless of gender, often exhibit both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits — while when just asked to imagine “a scientist,” people are more likely to imagine an “iconic” scientists like Einstein.
Only in psychology, which is overwhelmingly dominated by women, were women perceived as being a better fit than men.
Overall, the study empirically shows a perception that men are naturally suited to achieving scientific success and women aren’t — particularly when people think of the scientific ideal. This stereotype likely plays a significant role in many of the factors pushing women out of STEM.
“If you have a perception that women are not a good fit because of their personalities, it has this cascading effect on pay, evaluation, hiring,” said Carli.
Reality tells a different story
The masculine-coded image of the isolated, unemotional scientist isn’t exactly a reflection of reality — for either gender. “There are no gender differences in the traits that predict good science,” Carli said. “In leadership, the traits that predict success are extroversion and intelligence. In science, you need extroversion, intelligence, openness to new ideas, creativity…none of these traits differ in men and women.”
In the real world, scientists usually work communally in labs, collaborate to solve problems, and popular successful scientists, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy, are often socially engaging and extroverted.
Yet when people imagine a prototypical scientist, “It’s always this image of a lone man in a white coat alone in a lab,” said Carli. “People see scientists as pristine automatons. We have this image of them as very geeky, and all by themselves.”
This lonely, geeky stereotype is likely a deterrent for both men and women. Despite pushes to interest students in STEM subjects, according to a 2013 world ranking, the U.S. is currently ranked 31st in math and 24th in science — even lower than the 2009 rankings. Interesting more students in science is crucial to ensuring future technological growth, and widening the stereotype can open the field.
There are no gender differences in the traits that predict good science
Carli’s study suggests one possible remedy to the gender stereotypes in science. In each experiment, participants were broken into three classes: men, women at a coeducational facility, and women at a women’s-only college (Wellesley, where Carli teaches). Among men and women at coeducational facilities, the traits associated with women and the traits associated with scientists didn’t overlap at all. Only among the women at the women’s only college, where there is a higher proportion of female faculty, saw any similarity between the qualities of women and the qualities of successful scientists, though they still demonstrated a stronger overlap of between the traits of successful scientists and the traits of men.
A greater representation of female scientists is likely crucial to creating a culture shift. Yet while there has been a rise in highly visible female leaders in recent years, a corresponding shift has yet to occur in science. Carli told ThinkProgress that in a side study she conducted, participants struggled to name iconic female scientists.
To be visible, said Carli, “You’ve got to win a big prize, or be on TV” — yet when it comes to the kinds of recognition that gain actual scientists recognition and places in textbooks, women have historically been cut out of the limelight. And, Carli says, she’s still waiting for the female Bill Nye.
“Exposing people even temporarily to women leaders, and scientists, shifts their ideas of gender and science,” said Carli.