The uproar surrounding Larry Summers’ remarks on women in science and engineering, made almost three years ago (man, I’m getting old!) has died down, but the literature on social/environmental factors responsible, at least in part, for the large gender disparities in math-heavy fields continues to grow at a steady pace, continually putting to lie many of his claims. This month’s issue of Psychological Science contains two additions to that literature, one looking at the effect of experience on individual, and more importantly, gender differences in spatial attention, which is thought to be a key component of secondary math skills, and the other on the potential impact of certain social dynamics on women’s desire to enter math-heavy fields. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to the former at some point in the near future, but for the post, I’m just going to talk about the latter.
This the focus of this paper, by Murphy et al.(1), is related to the stereotype threat literature that I’ve talked about before, but treats stereotype threat as a particular member of a larger category, “social identity threat.” Murphy et al. define social identity threat as “a broad threat that people experience when they believe that they might be treated negatively or devalued in a setting simply because of a particular social identity they hold” (p. 879). We all have a variety of social identities — man, woman, black person, white person, dentist, psychologist, Republican, Democrat, trekkie, Cubs an — and we might be aware of any one (or more) of these in a given situation. If the situation makes us feel stigmatized as a result of the particular social identity or identities that we’re aware of at the time, then we’ll experience some form of social identity threat. As a result of this experience, we’re likely to avoid such situations. It’s not surprising, then, that women, who are clearly stigmatized in math-heavy fields, will tend to avoid them.
In fact, as Murphy et al. note, there’s some evidence that in any given situation, we’re most likely to be aware of the social identity that, in that situation, is most likely to cause us to be “treated negatively or devalued.” We appears that we are, therefore, very attuned to threats that result from our social identities. Women who are thinking about math or science careers would thus find it difficult not to feel threatened in math and science situations.
But what, exactly, are we paying attention to when we decide that such threats are present? The literature on social identity threats, including stereotype threat, hasn’t done a good job of answering that question, and often takes answers to it for granted. The Murphy et al. paper takes a step towards rectifying that.
The first step in doing so is to pick out some potentially relevant “situational cues” that might trigger the experience of social identity threat, and Murphy et al. selected an obvious candidate: the numerical disparity in math-heavy fields itself. They hypothesize that the inevitable awareness of this overwhelming numerical disparity might cause women to experience social identity threat, and thus feel less interested in pursuing careers in those fields.
To test this hypothesis, they conducted a simple experiment. They had 47 math, science, and engineering students at Stanford University (22 females and 25 males), all of whom “highly identified with math,” watch videos of a math, science, and engineering conference. In their two conditions, the conferences were identical in all respects except one, the ratio of males and females. In one condition, three out of four of the participants in the conference were male, and in the other, there was an equal number of males and females.
To get a measure of their participants’ experience of social identity threat, Murphy et al. measured several things: “cognitive vigilance,” that is, how closely they were paying to various situational cues; “physiological vigilance,” or just physiological arousal; “sense of belonging,” or how much they felt like they would belong at such a conference, and the participants’ desire to participate in the conference. They argued that participants who were experiencing social identity treat should display more cognitive vigilance (measured with two different memory tests) and physiological arousal, report a lower sense of belonging, and show less of a desire to participate in the conference.
For their male participants, the ratio of males to females in the conference videos had little effect on any of these measures. They remembered about as much about the video and the room in which they watched it (several math, science, and engineering-related items had been placed in the room, and participants were asked to remember those items after watching the video) regardless of whether they had watched the video with a 3:1 or 1:1 ratio. The same was true of their physiological arousal and sense of belonging. Interestingly, though, the men reported a greater desire to participate in the gender-balanced conference than in the unbalanced one.
The female participants, on the other hand, showed large differences in the two conditions. They remembered much more about the video and the room in which they watched it when the ratio was 3:1 than when it was 1:1, and in three different measures of physiological arousal (cardiacintereat interval, skin conductance, and sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular system), they showed significantly more arousal when watching the 3:1 than the 1:1 video. Thus it appears that watching a video with many more men than women increased both their cognitive and physiological “vigilance.” They also reported a much greater sense of belonging when watching the 1:1 video than when watching the 3:1 video, and like the male participants, expressed a greater desire to participate in the conference after watching the 1:1 video.
Obviously this is just an initial look at the role numerical disparities play in women’s experience of social identity threat in math-heavy fields, but it’s a pretty good first step. Sadly, this suggests that the situation we’re trying to overcome — women’s underrepresentation in math, science, and engineering — is self-perpetuating. When women perceive this underrepresentation, and if they’re at a university majoring in math, science, or engineering, they’re inevitably going to perceive it, they will likely experience social identity threat, and feel less of a sense of belonging. As a result, they’ll be less likely to choose math, science, or engineering as careers. Hopefully, however, realizing this and understanding how such cues operate in the production of social identity threat, will eventually help us overcome them.
I should add, at the end of this post, that this very problem greatly affects the field that I’m in. Psychology in general is actually female-dominated (the numbers range from 60-70%, depending on the school and the level), but in cognitive psychology, the ratio is almost reversed. In the lab I work in, we have several undergraduate research assistants each semester, most of whom are volunteers who get credit hours and research experience necessary for graduate school admissions. It’s not unusual for female research assistants to outnumber male assistants 5 or 6 to one. Yet there is only one female researcher in the lab at the graduate level or above, and while many of our undergraduate assistants go on to graduate school, few if any of the female students go on to graduate school in cognitive psychology. Many undergraduates come into the lab planning on going to grad school in other areas of psychology, of course, but it’s hard not to think that their experience of the gender disparity in our lab, which is representative of the area in general, affects their desire to go to grad school in cognitive psychology.
And I have to admit that I’m at a loss as to what to do about it. It’s not that the admission committee in the department is actively selecting more men, or excluding women, when accepting graduate students. It’s just that very few women apply. And the problem gets even worse at the faculty level, despite conscious (though, unfortunately, only recent) attempts to attract more women to the department. Murphy et al.’s research suggests that the problem is self-perpetuating, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of helplessness, even if the fact that people are studying the problem in earnest makes me cautiously optimistic.
1Murphy, M.C., Steele, C.M., & Gross, J.J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science, 18(10), 879-885.