Science: it’s a man’s world?

Man in science

Is science a man’s world? Image ‘Bad Lab Safety’ by Stuart Rankin (originally in public domain) – licensed under CC Attribution Noncommercial Generic 2.0. Click for source

This article was originally published on The Conversation and has been modified before publication here – we are very grateful to David for sharing this with us! – S & H. 

As stunning photos pour in from NASA’s flyby mission to Pluto, the New Horizons team also breaks new ground here on Earth: the team may have the most women on a NASA mission ever. The new high? About 50 women on a roughly 200-person team. Encouraging news. But the statistics still show some fields of science remain heavily male-dominated.

Children pick up on these gender cues at early ages. Over 40 years ago, less than 1% of American and Canadian elementary school children drew a woman when asked to draw a scientist. My latest research, published in Journal of Educational Psychology, shows that these gender-science stereotypes pervade the planet we live on, even in 2015.

Using data from nearly 350,000 people in 66 nations, my colleagues and I found that these stereotypes prevail even in supposedly “gender-equal” nations like Norway and Sweden. So much for gender equality in Scandinavia. These stereotypes matter because they can cause actions such as comments that overlook female scientists and hiring biases that favour men in some contexts.

Identifying the extent of the issue is one thing. It is quite another matter to learn how to change these beliefs so they reflect the diversity of actual scientists – and the children of both sexes who hope to grow up to join them. Think of the children, please.

More women, weaker stereotypes

The good news is that gender-science stereotypes were weaker in nations with more women in science. Nations with more female science majors, for instance, had weaker gender-science stereotypes on both “explicit” and “implicit” measures.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 12.32.47

Screenshot from the Implicit Association Test. What’s your score? Give it a shot! Source: implicit.harvard.edu, CC BY-NC-ND

Self-selected subjects completed these measures on the Project Implicit website. For the explicit measure, people rated how much they associated science with males or females. For the implicit measure, a computerized task assessed how quickly people associated science words such as “maths” and “physics” with male words such as “boy” and “man.”

My website has an interactive table with rankings for all nations. For implicit stereotypes, the US ranked in the middle at number 38 out of 66 nations, for instance. The UK was close by at number 33, while Australia was number 28, meaning implicit stereotypes associating science with men were stronger there. (Hurrah, we’re near the top of the leaderboard…oh wait. – S).

Out of all 66 nations, the Netherlands had the strongest explicit stereotypes and second strongest implicit stereotypes. For instance, 89% of Dutch subjects implicitly associated science with men more than women.

Simone Buitendijk, vice-rector at Leiden University in the Netherlands and a gender equity scholar, told me that she is not surprised, but nevertheless deeply concerned. “It is very much part of Dutch culture to see men as breadwinners and women as caretakers first,” she said. 2015 it may be, but it seems some attitudes have remained cosily curled up somewhere in the 1950s.

The strong Dutch stereotypes reflect the male dominance in science there – for example, Dutch men outnumber Dutch women by roughly 4:1 among science majors. “It will take a concerted effort by government, funding agencies and university leaders to change the situation,” so argues Buitendijk.

The more female science majors, the weaker implicit gender-science stereotypes. Graph primarily reflects 2000-2008 data. Adapted from Figure 2c in Miller, Eagly, and Linn (in press), CC BY-NC-ND

The more female science majors, the weaker implicit gender-science stereotypes. Graph primarily reflects 2000-2008 data. Adapted from Figure 2c in Miller, Eagly, and Linn (in press), CC BY-NC-ND

These data might suggest to some that stereotypes merely reflect reality. However, the data paint a more complex picture. People linked science with men even in nations such as Argentina and Bulgaria – where women are approximately half of science graduates and researchers.

Curt Rice, head of Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, told me how these international findings relate to a “gender equality paradox” sometimes discussed in Scandinavia. On one hand, Scandinavian nations have small gender gaps in labour force participation rates. “But we have tremendous sex-based segregation in the careers.” Great – so where to from here?

Dispelling stereotypes – or reinforcing them?

WOMAN IN CLASS

What about when women teach science? Image by UMKC. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. Click for source.

Highlighting examples of female scientists might help to weaken these pervasive stereotypes. For instance, in Norway, Rice plans to advance initiatives that enhance the visibility of female science professors through his upcoming role as President of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

Empirical data, however, suggest that female professors often have limited effects on students’ gender-science stereotypes. “Simply taking a college mathematics course from female instructors is generally not sufficient to change stereotypes,” notes my co-author Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

According to one study, taking chemistry and engineering courses from female versus male professors can even strengthen gender-science stereotypes if students do not identify with the professors. Related research suggests that the attitudes and messages that teachers convey can be more important than the teachers’ gender. In one study, for instance, kindergarten girls endorsed gender-maths stereotypes if their female teacher was anxious about mathematics.

More optimistically, educators could help weaken stereotypes by engaging students in analysing varied examples of female scientists, argues Marcia Linn, the other co-author of my study and professor of cognition and development at University of California. “Students reconsider who pursues science when they can compare examples of female scientists and reflect on their beliefs,” she says.

Did you know all scientists aren’t old white dudes? World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND

Not all scientists are old white dudes! World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND

Integrating stories about scientists into classroom instruction could have other benefits too. In one experiment, for instance, learning how scientists struggled in their research increased students’ content understanding and interest in science.

Seeing female peers in science might also help weaken stereotypes. Explicit gender-science stereotypes, for instance, are weaker among students in more gender-balanced science subjects like biology than male-dominated majors like physics, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. However, the data on peers are also complex. Implicit gender-science stereotypes are roughly the same among physical and biological science majors, for instance.

These studies reflect how firm gender-science stereotypes are, consistent with the Greek root “stereos” meaning “solid, firm.” Our cross-national findings nevertheless suggest optimism that stereotypes can change as people see more women in science. But changing cultural beliefs will be a slow process.

Marie Curie isn’t the only woman who’s pursued science. From xkcd.com

Marie Curie isn’t the only woman who’s pursued science. From xkcd.com

To accelerate cultural change, we need to move beyond heralding single examples of eminent female scientists such as Marie Curie. We even need to move beyond creating lists of accomplished female scientists, and instead directly integrate those examples into diverse cultural messages. Most recently, Disney Junior announced it will work with Google and NASA to create TV characters of both young boys and girls interested in coding and space science.

I applaud such efforts – they may help achieve even more gender diverse teams on future NASA missions and beyond. But more needs to be done to integrate female scientists into other cultural artifacts such as news articles, movies, and textbooks. These efforts are needed so that it’s not seen as atypical to discuss a woman scientist. (Hear hear! – S & H.)


David3

– David Miller is a psychology PhD student at Northwestern University studying how and why some students move into and out of STEM fields. Learn more about his research here or connect with him on Twitter (@davidimiller).

Free Email Updates

Subscribe now for the latest Bio Detectives newsletters!

100% spam-free (we hate spam, even in sandwiches)

2 Comments
  1. In the U.S. the highest income earners are those with college degrees in STEM fields. The National Foundation of Science reported only 29% of the field was made up of women and people of color. The difference in income between white men vs females and minorities correlates this inequality. Our academic achievement gap is undoubtedly an underlying cause. I agree that this article brings up another important point: our society does envision scientists as a white male in a lab coat. I saw myself in Bill Nye and pursued science education. We need to celebrate women like Dr. Ellen Ochoa and Dr. Wangari Maathai. “Who am I a reflection of?” Let’s address this culturally. Next, focus educational reform on racial equity through excellence not blame and bias. Equal pay and societal equity will improve.

    • Hi Brian! Thank you for your comment – you raise some interesting points. I agree with you – we definitely need broader representation in science media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × 4 =