Gender Balance in Science Settings May Explain Female Performance

PALO ALTO, Calif.
With the ratio of men to women in math, science and engineering (MSE) settings typically being three to one, such imbalance may contribute to a decrease in women’s performance expectations, as well as actual performance, according to a new study by Stanford University psychologists.

Building their study from the idea that gender imbalance may create an identity threat for women, Drs. Mary Murphy and Claude Steele contend that the organization of math, science and engineering environments has a major role in contributing to a lag in expectations and performance by women. Study results demonstrate that rather than being inherent to women, the experience of an identity threat in MSE settings can be attributed to the gender balance. The study appears in the October 2007 edition of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Murphy, Steele and colleagues had advanced MSE undergraduates view videos of gender-balanced and unbalanced groups participating in a potential MSE summer leadership conference. To determine the extent of an identity threat, the researchers recorded participants’ “physiological arousal during the video, cognitive vigilance, sense of belonging and desire to participate in the conference,” according to the study.

The women who viewed the gender-unbalanced video — where men outnumbered women by a three to one ratio — experienced faster heart rates, sweated more, and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference than when they viewed the gender-balanced video. Men, on the other hand, experienced no significant difference in physiological arousal, cognitive vigilance, or sense of belonging, whether watching the gender-balanced or the unbalanced video.

“Women probably feel more identity-safe in an environment where there are more women — they feel that they really could belong there — while men might simply be attracted by the unusual number of women in these settings. Men just aren’t used to seeing that many women in these settings, because the numbers in real math, science, and engineering settings are so unbalanced,” the authors wrote.

Coming in the aftermath of the remarks by former Harvard president Larry Summers that suggested women may not possess the same “innate ability” or “natural ability” in MSE fields as men, the study is part of a broad effort by researchers to examine the status of women and to solve the problem of female underrepresentation in MSE disciplines. Murphy says she hopes that her study will help the MSE community “when creating and modifying environments, so that they may foster perceptions of identity safety rather than threat.”



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