In the recent articles, blog posts, and comment threads about possible biological reasons for the continued gender disparity in tenured math and science faculty positions, the discussion seems to be divided between two groups: those who emphasize the social and cultural aspects involved in gender and intelligence, and those who emphasize the scientific evidence of standardized test performance. The science team rails against “political correctness,” claiming that by questioning the merits and motives of scientific hypotheses of differences in innate intelligence between different groups of people, that we are letting politics cloud our scientific judgment, preventing the truth–however unappealing it may be in the end–from being found.
As Caroline Simard writes, however, “The problem with the biology argument that “boys are just more likely to be born good at math and science” isn’t that it’s not “politically correct” — it’s that it assumes that we can take away the power of societal influences, which have much more solid evidence than the biology hypothesis.” This evidence comes from hundreds of scientific studies that continually reach the same result: when stereotyped innate differences between groups are emphasized in the context of academic performance testing, the group that is supposed to perform worse always does.
This concept is called stereotype threat and has been discussed here on ScienceBlogs over the years too many times for me to cite individually, but it seems like it’s time to mention it again. The first experiment describing the phenomenon was very simple–telling one group of Black students that the test they were taking was designed as a diagnostic of their innate ability was enough to significantly decrease their scores relative to the group that was not told. From the paper’s abstract:
Stereotype threat is being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. Studies 1 and 2 varied the stereotype vulnerability of Black participants taking a difficult verbal test by varying whether or not their performance was ostensibly diagnostic of ability, and thus, whether or not they were at risk of fulfilling the racial stereotype about their intellectual ability. Reflecting the pressure of this vulnerability, Blacks underperformed in relation to Whites in the ability-diagnostic condition but not in the nondiagnostic condition (with Scholastic Aptitude Tests controlled). Study 3 validated that ability-diagnosticity cognitively activated the racial stereotype in these participants and motivated them not to conform to it, or to be judged by it. Study 4 showed that mere salience of the stereotype could impair Blacks’ performance even when the test was not ability diagnostic. The role of stereotype vulnerability in the standardized test performance of ability-stigmatized groups is discussed.
This result has been repeated nearly three hundred times with different groups and in different conditions. In one striking example, even white males who were proficient in math were susceptible to stereotype threat when told that their math scores would be compared against those of Asians, a group stereotyped as being especially good at math. This effect was seen primarily in men who self-reported as caring deeply about their math ability:
The results are similar when gender stereotypes are studied. Not only have studies shown that girls perform worse when they are presented with a stereotype threat at the outset of the experiment, but global trends in the effect of cultural stereotypes about girls’ math performance have also been extensively studied. A fascinating 2009 paper in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences correlated girls’ test scores in math in 34 different countries with results from surveys measuring how much citizens of those countries associated math and science as a stereotypically male activity. The trend is striking–in countries where math is more stereotypically associated with boys, girls perform worse in relation to their male peers.
The recent articles citing innate gender differences in math performance claim that we’ve overcome this implicit cultural stereotype in the US now as the average difference in math scores has closed. What is left of gender disparity at the highest levels of achievement and in tenured faculty positions is the natural, genetically determined difference in the distribution of intelligence. But how does the very existence of a scientific study claiming genetic factors for intelligence affect future performance on academic examinations? A short paper in Science in 2006 explores this question by giving students a test similar to the GRE. The first part of the test was of verbal skills, constructed as reading comprehension of a short essay. The girls who read an essay about a scientific study showing that differences in math ability between boys and girls were based on genetic differences performed significantly worse on the subsequent math section than girls who read and essay about how different experiences had the largest impact on math performance.
The authors conclude by saying “Whether there are innate sex differences in math performance remains a contentious question. However, merely considering the role of genes in math performance can have some deleterious consequences. These findings raise discomforting questions regarding the effects that scientific theories can have on those who learn about them and the obligation that scientists have to be mindful of how their work is interpreted.”
Words aren’t just the stuff of the verbal skills that girls are supposed to be good at (the consolation prize of the innate intelligence crowd), words have meaning and words have the power to hurt and to influence generations of boys and girls into thinking that there are things that they just can’t do well. Reducing stereotype threat will make a huge impact on how students perform and how intelligence and ability are measured and perceived, but it is hardly enough. Small differences in math test scores are a convenient statistic to cite to explain away the lack of women in tenured faculty positions in math and science, but even if those go away, the structural barriers and difficulties that women, couples, and families face in the academic job track, the sexism and prejudice in how CVs and applications are read and interpreted, the fact that women still receive 75 cents of salary for every dollar a man makes in the same job, and the macho culture of many science fields still exist and will continue to discourage women into dropping out of science at the postdoctoral level. We need political correctness, we need people talking about these social forces and cultural issues, we need congressional legislation to “fulfill the potential of women in academic science and engineering.” We don’t need male scientists and commenters interpreting the evidence of social biases as facts of nature.