Mixing Memory

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.

Comments

  1. #1 agnostic
    October 16, 2007

    At least for race, stereotype threat does not account for the observed gap in performance — inducing S.T. exacerbates the gap, but eliminating it leaves the gap as it normally is. The same could be true for sex, and probably is true, so that eliminating S.T. won’t accomplish much. Cite:
    http://www.gnxp.com/MT2/archives/002620.html

    It’s not surprising, then, that women, who are clearly stigmatized in math-heavy fields, will tend to avoid them.

    That’s not clear at all.

    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.

    All the elite schools had Jewish quotas (not to mention the vile caricatures of their group in the larger culture) — but rather than wimp out, Jews formed “de facto Ivies” like CUNY that beat the snot out of Harvard, etc., in math competitions, did respectably in Nobel Prizes, yadda yadda yadda.

    This is also a huge counterexample to the claim that sheer lack of numbers will cause members of the underrepresented group to shy away in a non-trivial amount. How many eminent Jewish physicists and mathematicians were there before 1900? Not many. What about by 2000? Tons. This is a good “reality check.”

    Re: cog psych — maybe females are less interested in the engineering aspects of things. You’ve taken something fun for a lot of students of both sexes (psychology) and adulterated it with engineering. Your average psych major drifts toward it because there are no equations, math, etc., aside from being able to interpret the reported inferential stats.

    I took two senior seminars on language acquisition at undergrad, one touchy-feely but still a serious journal club — full of females, almost 100% of 18 members — and the other a connectionist modeling class — all 4 members male. I and the other male in the first class didn’t feel threatened or intimidated by all the estrogen in the room.

    And any female who’s going to contribute something isn’t going to be intimidated by the males — we can dial down the testosterone to a civil level, but in the end science is not for wimps of either sex. If you aren’t stubborn, tenacious, and have the killer instinct, you’re not going to amount to a good researcher.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    October 16, 2007

    I agree with agnostic completely. In fact I would extend his hypothesis to include martyrs like Larry Summers. When driven from academia by the all pervasive cult of political correctness, they should emulate Jews and start their own universities. Don’t roll over like a wimp, YOU GET OUT THERE AND KICK SOME FEMINAZI ASS!

  3. #3 Forza
    October 16, 2007

    I think agnostic is missing something — it’s not that women are intimidated by being in an environment where they’re the minority per se — the intimidation occurs when they’re numerically overwhelmed by people that they know are culturally perceived as “better than them” on the relevant dimension. (The “dimension” part is important: a typical woman will not be intimidated ina room full of men trying to, say, evaluate fashion – unless they are gay ;) ). I’d predict that in the math/science context, the very same woman wouldn’t be intimidated, or would be much less in a room full of black men (sad to say)… and many guys would be intimidated in a room full of Asians with pocket protectors, or people they know are MIT grad students, or whatever. (Yes, all of these are stereotypes, but that’s the point). The intimidating thing is being surrounded by people that you have received thousands of cultural messages saying they’re better than you — even if you don’t believe it consciously, the intimidation is unconscious and therefore can be very hard to fight.

    That said, speaking as a woman finishing her PhD at MIT in a techy field, I agree with agnostic that doing good science requires you to be confident. (Dialing down the testosterone is a nice idea, though). I learned early on that the way to survive was NOT to try to eliminate that feeling of intimidation — you just can’t, no matter how much objective affirmation you receive about your competence and expertise. The solution is to turn that feeling of intimidation into a feeling of challenge and a source of inspiration. I now like being in mostly-male groups (which is a good thing, given how often it happens) because — after years of self-training — my automatic response is “I’ll show them what I can do” rather than “They’re going to think I’m dumb because I’m a girl.”

    It’s a lot hard road to get there, though, and I still relapse if it’s a domain I don’t know well. Still, maybe at the core of this story there’s a little insight — maybe we could train people to train themselves in this way. I don’t know how generalizable such training would be, because I had a lot of other advantages (including a childhood and a set of parents that never reinforced those societal messages, so I had a lot less to overcome than many). Still, it’s a thought.

  4. #4 RM
    October 16, 2007

    In re: the comments of agnostic and Forza, I’m interested in the converse — that is, to look at a situation where the ratio was 1:3 female heavy. We could postulate and trade personal anecdotes all we want, but is there really a “minority threat” when that minority is male? More interestingly, would the female subjects do better in a mostly female environment (like single-sex education people like to claim), or would they, like the males, benefit from a more balanced ratio.

    It’s sad that the researchers didn’t add in this “obvious” extra condition. I hope it was simply a funding/time issue, and that the condition wasn’t left out for political/philosophical reasons.

  5. #5 razib
    October 16, 2007

    the intimidation occurs when they’re numerically overwhelmed by people that they know are culturally perceived as “better than them” on the relevant dimension.

    &

    ‘m interested in the converse — that is, to look at a situation where the ratio was 1:3 female heavy. We could postulate and trade personal anecdotes all we want, but is there really a “minority threat” when that minority is male?

    1) women are heavy in verbal humanities.

    2) there is a stereotype that women are better with words and verbal tasks than males.

    3) but as you ascend the ladder of status/success/achievement you get more and more males…. (e.g., undergrad -> grad student -> professor).

  6. #6 Forza
    October 16, 2007

    The problem with your suggested test, Razib, is that it is heavily confounded with age/generation. i.e., many professors came of age in a society where the general stereotype wasn’t that “women are good at verbal, men are good at math”; it was “women don’t belong in the academy” (aren’t smart enough, whatever). So if their numbers are lower I don’t think it necessarily tells us about this debate.

    Grad students are a better comparison for that reason: people in their 20s probably had to deal with a bit of the “women are just dumber in general” or “don’t need a career” stereotype, but much less of one, so that would probably be a negligible factor (at least in certain subpopulations). I’d be happy with assuming that for the sake of argument, in any case.

    I don’t have the statistics — and I’m way too busy at the moment to spend too much time googling for them, I’m sorry! — but I thought that many humanities graduate programs were starting to have precisely the problem you’d predict: not enough males, despite active attempts to recruit them. Again, anecdotally, that’s my experience w.r.t. to the departments I know of. (Of course, even if the numbers bear out my impression, there is the confound that maybe males just aren’t as interested in those topics, but if these are in fields that were 90% male a generation ago, that’s a difficult argument to make).

    I agree, though, empirical evidence along all of these lines would be nice.

  7. #7 Chris Crawford
    October 16, 2007

    This data presents a partial case for an affirmative action policy towards women in scientific fields in which they are underrepresented. If additional experiments reveal that this phenomenon of “minority threat” is real and a significant factor in recruiting talented individuals, then it would benefit all if women were given a slight preference in admissions. With the passage of time, the ratio would tend towards balance and, with the minority threat removed, the preferential treatment could be terminated. However, I tend to be wary of preferential treatment, as it has in the past yielded poor results. I’d like to keep the preference level low and closely monitor the results to determine if they actually produce benefits. If after, say, ten years no signficant results have been obtained, then it would be best to abandon such a scheme.

  8. #8 Forza
    October 16, 2007

    Actually, Chris, I don’t agree with you that the data provide a partial case for affirmative action: if the findings are true, they suggest that the causal factor for women not being in science is that being in this intimidating “minority” situation just makes them not want to do it. So you’d want an intervention that makes women more able to overcome that feeling.

    An intervention like affirmative action is, I’d argue, wrongheaded because it tries to treat the “gatekeeping” end of things — i.e., the gatekeepers at admissions — when the problem isn’t in admissions, it’s that women lose interest, in part because of the numerical imbalance. (Again, I’m assuming for the sake of argument that the study’s findings are real; I think more replication, including the controls people have identified, are necessary before drawing any firm conclusions).

    Treating the “gatekeeping” end with affirmative action, while it might slightly increase the number of women in math/science, probably wouldn’t have a large effect if that’s not where the original problem was (i.e., if admissions offices weren’t originally unconsciously making it harder for females to enter). In fact, if that’s the case, I think it would ultimately have a pernicious effect, because it would indirectly contribute to the underlying reason that the high male/female ratio is intimidating to women: the prevalent cultural belief that the men are smarter. If women are let in with lower standards, then it will be statistically true that women in math/science, as a group, are “dumber” than men — which will only reinforce the stereotype.

    One way for women to overcome the intimidation factor is to know that you belong, and that you aren’t dumber than the guys, whatever other messages you get; one of the things that helped me a lot was knowing MIT has really rigorous admissions standards, and that I could compare my test scores etc any day against anyone’s and not feel embarrassed. (Not that those are the only measure of things, but they are objective and quantitative and thus much beloved by us math folk). ;) If I knew there was an affirmative action program for women in my department, or didn’t have those objective standards, then I think it would have been a lot harder to overcome the intimidation factor.

    So, although I think the suggestion of affirmative action is definitely made in good faith — and I appreciate the effort to try to think about how to affect things from a policy perspective rather than just throw your hands up and say “clearly women are worse in math and science” — I don’t think that’s the direction to go.

    Just to lay my cards out on the table and spend more time writing in comments sections on blogs rather than doing my work. :)

  9. #9 razib
    October 16, 2007

    forza, i’ll dig up some numbers. the confounding issue is real, but i doubt it explains all of it. look at what chris is saying in cog sci. the ratio of females:males drops even within the 5-10 year window between undergrads -> grads in the present.

    but I thought that many humanities graduate programs were starting to have precisely the problem you’d predict: not enough males, despite active attempts to recruit them.but I thought that many humanities graduate programs were starting to have precisely the problem you’d predict: not enough males, despite active attempts to recruit them.

    1) i think it is more of an issue in undergrad in general. men are underrepresented.

    2) i tend to think to some extent this is a crap concern. lots of males go into blue-collar skilled trades vis-a-vis women of similar academic profile (who might get an associates or undergrad degree and enter the pink & white collar world).

    3) the only place i’ve ever heard a dude complain about women is in women’s studies discussions where guys said they had to play their “role” (i.e., token oppressor) or else get ripped into by the professor (the exception being if you are a racial minority, though there you have issues if you don’t express solidarity appropriately). otherwise, they’re generally happy not to deal with a schlong-fest (i know guys who have gone to schools with female skews for the dating scene). forza, you’re at MIT, you must know that many of the guys there hate the sex imbalance. i had friends who developed real calculated strategies to get out of that environment because the competition was insane (e.g., run over to tufts and harvard for particular parties, etc.).

    4) there is some problem in that more males than women academically under-perform in secondary school so they aren’t prepared for college. this is an issue about the pipeline and recruitment isn’t really something that needs to be focused on.

  10. #10 Chris Crawford
    October 16, 2007

    Forza, I readily concede that affirmative action programs have a sorry history, but for this particular phenomenon, there might be some benefit. If the initial female portion is 30% without affirmative action, then adding a slight bias in favor of females will, in the short run, yield a slightly higher percentage of female graduates. That small increment should propagate through the system, yielding some final increment in the number of female professors. The process is self-reinforcing, because as more females reach professorial level, the minority threat diminishes and more females apply.

    Of course, I’m making a questionable assumption here: that people with slighly lower qualifications are just as likely to reach professorial level. Given the intensity of competition for academic posts, that assumption is certainly vulnerable to challenge. However, we must also recognize the arbitrariness of the graduate selection process; there’s a lot of plain dumb luck, and it’s impossible to know who’ll catch fire and who’ll turn out to be a dud. I don’t think that the test scores and GPAs that we rely upon for graduate admissions are that reliable. So long as our preference increments for females are less than our uncertainty in the selection process, I think we’re on safe ground using affirmative action.

  11. #11 Stephan Johnson
    October 16, 2007

    I admit to being woefully ignorant of the current state of stereotype threat (all I know is Steele’s work), but I must be missing something here. The implication from the post and all the comments is that results in the three tested variables (cognitive vigilance, physiological response, and feeling of belonging) is that this obviously negatively impacts performance in a field. But where is that data? It would seem to my naive observation that, unless cognitive vigilance was restricted to the color of the drapes or the shape of the podium, it’s actually a good thing to be more cognitively vigilant of the proceedings of a conference in one’s field. That the other two deleteriously affect performance wants another study, no? The findings on self esteem may not be totally irrelevant here in that it’s not an open and shut case that feelings of belonging are conducive to any kind of objective advantage in performance. As for physiological response, why couldn’t that be viewed positively as well? Anyway, like I said, this is coming from a naif in these areas. Please advise.

  12. #12 agnostic
    October 16, 2007

    Forza’s comments show why the intimidation can’t be very real — if you’re as smart as your male peers at an elite school, you are very aware of that. In fact, if they have dating trouble, many of them are likely to say, “The reason I can’t get a good date is because the desirable guys are intimidated by a woman with brains.” So, they tend to be aware of their brains, and confident about it.

    The only way you could actually be intimidated in that situation is if you were an affirmative action beneficiary — then you would question whether you really were smart and creative enough to get in on your own merits. Imagine a woman who is 6’4, and who enters a room of mostly males, where the average male there is 6’4 — is she going to feel “short” or “average height”? Nope. Especially with traits that have numbers readily stuck to them, like IQ / SAT / GRE, your GPA, the ranking of your previous school, etc., it’s hard not to notice whether you’re on an equal footing with everyone else or not.

    Men in a gymnastics class would feel intimidated watching the females do the splits — but that’s because a male is less likely to be incredibly flexible, not because the distributions are equal and he has some silly insecurity.

  13. #13 Richard Sharpe
    October 17, 2007

    RM asked:


    In re: the comments of agnostic and Forza, I’m interested in the converse — that is, to look at a situation where the ratio was 1:3 female heavy. We could postulate and trade personal anecdotes all we want, but is there really a “minority threat” when that minority is male? More interestingly, would the female subjects do better in a mostly female environment (like single-sex education people like to claim), or would they, like the males, benefit from a more balanced ratio.

    What about other things like, say, stuttering? Is it stereotype threat that causes more males than females to stutter? Perhaps it is also stereotype threat that result in more male autistics than female autistics.

    From another angle, if the majority of females suffer from stereotype threat, then females that do not suffer from stereotype threat have an advantage. Pretty soon, I would imagine, females who suffer from stereotype threat would be eliminated from the population. N’est pas?

  14. #14 Forza
    October 17, 2007

    Razib: yes, I’d be curious to see some actual numbers. It’s difficult, of course, because all of this is so intertwined with things like interest (which itself might be because of innate/genetic factors, or societal conditioning), the availability of other opportunities (as you point out), etc. And I’m not sure if you meant this by your #3, or were seeking to respond to something that you thought I was implying, but I’m definitely not trying to suggest or maintain that to the extent there are cultural stereotypes to overcome — or societal dynamics that conspire to result in imbalanced gender ratios, over and above what you’d expect from people’s a priori interests and abilities — that this is the fault of the guys in the system. I mean, sure there are some jerks anywhere you go :) but for the most part, I think skewed gender ratios don’t actually benefit anybody. Not just for social reasons, though those are there, but to the extent that they result from reasons other that true differences in aptitude and interest, it means that it hurts us as a society and individuals because people aren’t ending up in the positions where they’d be happiest or be able to contribute most.

    So, I’m not sure if you made comment #3 thinking I was coming from an anti-male or “blaming the guys” perspective, but I wasn’t. Based on your comments, it seems like we can both agree that skewed gender ratios kind of suck for everyone involved, all other things being equal.

    Chris: good point – I do agree that if the increment preferences for females are smaller than our uncertainty, that in itself shouldn’t cause a problem… but the good from that might still be overwhelmed by the negative perception that comes from knowing that affirmative action is in force. In other words, if knowing that affirmative action occurs causes women to be X% more likely to devalue themselves and think they are dumb (and thus drop out or not continue), but makes Y% more women show up, then it’s a good idea only if Y>X (assuming of course that Y is within the margin of uncertainty). The problem is, we have no way that I know of to assign values to these numbers…

    agnostic: Thanks for deciding you know what’s going on in my mind better than I do! :) It’s not at all the case that if you’re as smart as your peers at an elite school, you’re aware of that. Look up the “imposter syndrome” – most of the first years of my PhD I spent dealing with that, and still do in some cases (as I said in my last post). Your analogy with height doesn’t work: height is obviously apparent on surface inspection. “Aptitude for science” or “intelligence” are most certainly not. Even if you knew everybody’s test scores (which you don’t) that’s only an indication — there are also intangibles like creativity, focus, drive, and all the aspects of intelligence that aren’t easily measured by a test. Plus, there’s the tendency to downgrade even objective test results (“I just had a good day”;”it doesn’t mean much”) or think that you’re the one person MIT made a mistake in admitting. The fact that I was able to, with a lot of work, fight the tendency to do all this does not mean at all that “the intimidation can’t be very real.” Please, give me the respect of assuming I know my own mind and my own experiences.

  15. #15 ebenezer
    October 17, 2007

    There seems to be something overlooked in this debate, namely the history of academia. I am not denying the harsh effects of feeling that ones social identity is threatened, and the resulting difficulty women will feel attempting to enter fields such as mathematics and engineering—these are relatively obvious to anyone who has spoken with a women in any of these fields. (My field, philosophy, suffers from the same problem.) However, presumably at some time in the past all of academia was dominated by men, regardless of the field. Women (and I very well may have the history wrong here, so please correct me if I do) were teachers at lower levels of education, but universities were severely, if not entirely, male dominated.

    The question then arises: why did some areas of study incorporate women quicker than others? Presumably the problem of social identity threat was present everywhere in a university, and the self-perpetuating aspect would thus also have been there. So why, for example, do we see a more equal female representation in some departments on not others? Are the men in these other departments just more intimidating and chauvinistic? Are the women worse at these other subjects? (I suspect the answer to the latter question is: NO!) Are they just fields women are less likely to be interested in, and thus less likely to fight for representation in? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they seem like ones worth asking.

  16. #16 mondo
    October 17, 2007

    Regardless of gender and ethnicity, the science fields simply need to do a better job at recruiting and retaining more attractive people above a certain level of demonstrated competency.

  17. #17 quidnunc
    October 17, 2007

    This could be silly or off the wall but I wonder if part of the effect could be explained by women being more status sensitive. Pure math and engineering is full of low status males (if you want to dispute this, sit in on any upper level engineering class wherever you are). It may be that low status is an amplifying effect for those who self select into it (they’re smarter) but it might also repel others (perceived employment prospects also loom in a range of alternatives).

    One could compare it with a higher status discipline that has similar standards (something in the life sciences maybe). A comparison could also be made in bandwagon disciplines, e.g. Computer Science during and after the tech boom, where ratios were not quite equal but proportionally the ratio of women dropped from 25-30% to 10-15%, although lower standards could be confounding (one reason why not is the far fewer proportion of women who take the AP compsci exam)

  18. #18 A
    October 17, 2007

    “[women] showed significantly more arousal when watching the 3:1 than the 1:1 video. …watching a video with many more men than women increased both their cognitive and physiological “vigilance.”

    Wouldn’t heterosexuality more parsimoniously explain the above pattern of results? Both the increased “vigilance” and “arousal” of women when watching 3:1 men, and men being more motivated to “participate” in the 1:1 conference?

  19. #19 Kea
    October 17, 2007

    Are the men in these other departments just more intimidating and chauvinistic?

    Sadly, yes, at least from my perspective in Theoretical Physics. And by and large, they do NOTHING to address the situation, because it’s ‘not their problem’. They don’t even care enough about their subject to understand that by denying half of the talent pool a chance, they are actually holding back progress. Meanwhile – back to my waitressing job…

  20. #20 Richard Sharpe
    October 18, 2007


    Sadly, yes, at least from my perspective in Theoretical Physics. And by and large, they do NOTHING to address the situation, because it’s ‘not their problem’. They don’t even care enough about their subject to understand that by denying half of the talent pool a chance, they are actually holding back progress. Meanwhile – back to my waitressing job…

    You know, Albert did not sit around and whine that the mean boys in Physics were excluding a large part of the talent pool. He did very important physics while working as a patent clerk. That path is open to you.

    Secondly, I have seen this claim that because males do not welcome women in to field X they are excluding half the talent pool and thereby preventing some important new breakthrough.

    The claim is crap. These fields are competitive and draw from people who are three or more SDs above the mean. It is well known that the variances differ between males and females. The talent pools are not equal.

  21. #21 Joseph Hertzlinger
    October 18, 2007

    When driven from academia by the all pervasive cult of political correctness, they should emulate Jews and start their own universities. Don’t roll over like a wimp, YOU GET OUT THERE AND KICK SOME FEMINAZI ASS!

    That’s what the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute are for.

    Now all they need is some students…

  22. #22 Danniel
    October 19, 2007

    agnostic said: “At least for race, stereotype threat does not account for the observed gap in performance — inducing S.T. exacerbates the gap, but eliminating it leaves the gap as it normally is. The same could be true for sex, and probably is true, so that eliminating S.T. won’t accomplish much.”

    In the article about ST on wikipedia, graphs for both sex and races shows actually that without ST “black” and females can outperform white people (supposedly mixed European ascent, but I don’t know) and males (but perhaps these were black people of high white miscigenation, recognized as black due to the “one drop rule”, and females could be mutants of some sort, while the competing whites could be degenerated ones, of lower social classes).

    What would be the “normal” position of the gap(s)? Would it be a biologically determined one? Or the “normal” position of the gap is just the usual one, whatever sources it may have (such as socio-economic disparities) it may have?

    As ST is somewhat common, the gap position caused by its influence could be considered “normal”, if we’re not to consider only biological causes as “normal” (which would probably not be accurate since “white”, “black”, and “man”/”woman” can be groups of relatively poor biological meaning in many aspects – perhaps some strains of different continents/races are much better or worse than the artificially distorted mean, and consequently the women of these strains could be much better than average women (unless selection favored female inferiority in these groups for some reason we can come up with, perhaps an local adaptive shift, requiring improvement of the male, but compensated with female inferiority (as female superiority could be less adaptive, locally), retaining the total adaptation of the deme, accomplished with the same trophic requirements).

    If “normal” is supposed to refer only to biological causes, it seems to not be clear if there’s a gap or where precisely it would be. Could be, for instance, that white males are inferior to black and females, but acquired an instinct to promote ST, as the resulting inferiority of females and black people would bring some sort of adaptive advantage (somewhat like arrested development in non-alpha male orangutans, but a behavioral, not pheromonal mechanism). Not to mention that, by the same way the larger groups have differences, fast evolving, smaller strains could have as well, so talking about gaps between huge, artificial groups, when trying to measure superiority of inferiority, could be meaningless; inferior strains would benefit from grouping with superior ones at the same time that would, unfairly, artificially decrease their superiority.

  23. #23 Danniel
    October 19, 2007

    About the whole thing of minimizing ST because one would know “deep inside” that is or is not good enough:

    “[...]Over the past decade, one key insight that has emerged in psychology is that seemingly irrelevant details within a person’s environment can strongly influence their behaviour. In one experiment, Bargh and his team asked volunteers at their lab to work through questionnaires, the hidden purpose of which was to “prime” some of them to words associated with old age, such as “Florida”, “sentimental” and “wrinkle”. The real test started as the participants left to go home, when the researchers secretly timed how long it took them to walk down a long corridor while leaving the building. Those volunteers who had been primed walked significantly more slowly than those who had not, as if the elderly stereotype had got into their very being.[...]

    From New Scientist, “Why we are all creatures of habit

  24. #24 bluestream
    October 21, 2007

    There appears to be publication bias in the ST literature. For each significant finding, there are probably many studies that didn’t show anything and were never submitted for publication. These effects are fragile and consequently, other than the attractiveness of the hypotheses in the current cultural milieu, probably dont nearly have as much explanatory power that their proponents would like them to have. Publication bias combined with weak effects do not make a convincing case of the practical importance of ST as a solo factor.

    On the other hand, the positive effects of single-gender classrooms (and schools) for girls and boys have been documented on a far more sounder footing but these results (strangely enough!) are not as welcome given that segregation is not looked upon kindly.

  25. #25 Wendy
    October 23, 2007

    I admit to being woefully ignorant of the current state of stereotype threat (all I know is Steele’s work), but I must be missing something here. The implication from the post and all the comments is that results in the three tested variables (cognitive vigilance, physiological response, and feeling of belonging) is that this obviously negatively impacts performance in a field. But where is that data? It would seem to my naive observation that, unless cognitive vigilance was restricted to the color of the drapes or the shape of the podium, it’s actually a good thing to be more cognitively vigilant of the proceedings of a conference in one’s field. That the other two deleteriously affect performance wants another study, no? The findings on self esteem may not be totally irrelevant here in that it’s not an open and shut case that feelings of belonging are conducive to any kind of objective advantage in performance. As for physiological response, why couldn’t that be viewed positively as well? Anyway, like I said, this is coming from a naif in these areas. Please advise.

    Hi Stephan…
    I think the point you are bringing up here is a good one. Some level of arousal is positive ( as illustrated by the Yerkes Dodson curve where medium levels of arousal increase performance). However, at higher levels of arousal, performance declines. An argument may be made that women find themselves to be more aroused overall in these heavily male dominated situations, and so reach levels of arousal that acutally hamper performance more readily than men do in the same situations. As an interesting addition, Yerkes and Dodson found that the degree of arousal that is optimal (and by extension the amount of arousal that is too high and thereby results in suboptimal performance) decreases as task difficulty (read higher levels of math and science) rises. I don’t know about any of you, but I found my intuitive calculus class took a greater degree of focus than my English composition class… just a thought ;o)

  26. #26 penny
    November 9, 2007

    Richard,
    From my perspective as a tenured FEMALE research mathematician and former member of IAS, and Max Planck,
    Your comment:
    “The claim is crap. These fields are competitive and draw from people who are three or more SDs above the mean. It is well known that the variances differ between males and females. The talent pools are not equal.

    is crap.

    Two reasons:
    One, even if there are five or ten times as many men than women with the talent, because of the claimed variance–there are six billion people on earth and only about a hundred math slots at Harvard.

    Two: What you say is very well known–but, not correct.
    At all levels from elementary school to graduate school, girls get better grades in math than boys. Who cares if
    some “rod and frame” test shows that males are a few tenths of a second faster on mental rotation? Or if SAT math scores show more boys at the high end? That gap is narrowing fast anyway, as more parents are willing to pay for SAT prep for girls, who want careers.

    By the way, Icelandic girls outperform males on Math “aptitude tests” and eskimo girls outperform American boys on spatial skills. In the 1920′s, when IQ tests were being developed ( and girls did sewing from patterns) American boys were outperformed by GIRLS on spacial tests.
    They searched long and hard to find spacial tests where boys did slightly better.

    If girls are superior in verbal skills, as the same tests
    of “ability” show–where is the greater variance for men ( i.e. greater numbers of high end skills), that you claim?–and why are the top
    departments ( such as Harvard) not dominated by WOMEN?
    Could it be….discrimination?

    As a theoretical physicist you probably know that Y.
    Choquet–Bruhat ( mathematical physicist) was the first person to solve the Einstein Cauchy Problem without special symmetries, that Mayer ( theoretical physicist)
    won a Nobel for her work on the nuclear shell model, that
    Lise Meitner created the mathematical theory of
    nuclear fission, that a woman discovered the Ceph Var
    yardstick in Astrophysics, and that Lisa Randall ( who IS at Harvard)was, for a while, the MOST highly cited theoretical physicist in the world.

    All this against SEVERE discrimination in the academic world.

    Give women a chance, and we will DOMINATE math and physics in this century.

    p.s. It is true that in DISEASES that are genetically determined males have more variance than women ( based on old studies, anecdotal evidence–and the studies were probably bad)–but, high math ability is NOT a genetic disease.

  27. #27 Penny
    November 9, 2007

    Richard,
    Are you the Richard Sharpe who wrote a nice book on Differential Geometry? If so, since I am a differential geometer, maybe we should be trading papers, and looking for joint research–rather than wasting our time with this silly topic here?
    Penny

  28. #28 lili
    January 22, 2010

    It’s a very nice theme….Really