Women in scientific and science-related fields

Here is a summary1 of the main points I gleaned by looking at the literature (keeping in mind that sex and gender differences are huge fields, and that adequately covering all the literature is probably within the scope of a PhD thesis, not a 1500-word undergraduate essay):

1. Women are under-represented in scientific, technology-based, engineering and mathematics fields. The purpose of the review was to investigate why this is the case.

2. The papers I looked at mainly dealt with gender differences. Even most of the ones that referred to “sex” were really talking about gender2.

3. Biological psychology, in most of the cases I’ve seen, is stupid. Sorry, but it is. It seems to exist more for legitimising inequity and asshattery than anything else (“Men cheat because they need to spread their seed! It’s SCIENCE!” etc.) In all seriousness, though, evolutionary biology assumes its dictates are universal – disregarding time, place, culture, etc. Also, gender roles have been shifting over the past few decades, which can’t be accounted for by evolution, which sort of takes millennia.

4. A large percentage of the developmental papers I’ve read about gender differences acknowledge that gender is at least to some extent socially constructed and/or mediated3.

5. Children learn about socially gender-linked characteristics and gender appropriateness at a scarily young age (well before the age of 6), and also about penalties for not behaving in a gender-appropriate way.

6. As a continuation of point 4, children are uncannily good at profiling various grown-up occupations based on gender appropriateness. Not only that, but they’re pretty good at distinguishing between high- and low-status jobs.

7. Boys seem to be more attracted to the higher-status jobs (most of which happen to be male-typed professions, as defined by the children), whereas girls seem more attracted to female-typed professions, despite knowing full-well that they have a lower social standing4.

8. This most likely stems from the concept of self-efficacy5, which, in a nutshell, means that people lean towards things they seem to be good at, they’re encouraged to do, have good role models for, and are socially sanctioned.

9. Looking at the factors which contribute to self-efficacy beliefs – in a study, parents were found to explain scientific concepts to male children three times as much as to female children. Teachers have also been found, in other studies, to encourage boys more than girls to ask questions and make consolidating statements. In addition, the fact that there are fewer women in science (and mathematics, and engineering, technology, etc) professions means that girls don’t have many role models/mentors, which in turn means they are less likely to enter those fields. On top of this, the societies and cultural groups that were surveyed in the literature I read (mostly middle-class white America and UK – there is a huge publication bias that ties in with other sorts of inequity, such as English language hegemony, but that’s a topic for another time) do clearly have a divide between male- and female-typed professions.

So, not having satisfied any of the conditions needed for achieving a feeling of self-efficacy in a scientific field, girls don’t consider themselves efficacious for this field, and hence start looking elsewhere.

10. Studies looking at how intelligence/mathematical ability/spatial skills tests are performed have found an interesting sort of gender bias. Basically, women taking these tests seem to know that these are “male” domains, which adds pressure to the test process, which has a negative impact on the results.

11. To examine the effect of these cultural stereotypes on performance, there have been studies done on stereotype threat and stereotype priming.

12. Stereotype threat – the stress/anxiety a member of a stigmatised group feels when they feel they are in danger of confirming negative stereotypes about themselves and the group they belong to. Stereotype priming – reading out a passage regarding a stereotype prior to performing an unrelated test.

13. Stereotype threat studies might involve something like addressing Female Group 1 in terms of their gender before administering the test, and addressing Female Group 2 in gender-neutral way before the same test, for example relating to them as “university students” rather than “women”6. Interestingly, certain racial stereotypes (“model minority” stereotypes) seem to boost performance in some of these tests. Personally I wonder how much extra pressure to perform that adds to the testing process.

14. Stereotype priming usually involves getting Group 1 (made up of males and females) to listen to an audio recording about a “typical” woman’s day-to-day activities, and Group 2 (also mixed-gender) to listen to a recording about a “typical” man’s day-to-day activities, and then administering an intelligence test to both groups7.

15. These studies have had the following results:

a. Stereotype threat – women perform worse in the stereotype threat condition than in the stereotype-neutral condition.

b. Stereotype priming – both males and females perform worse in the female stereotype priming condition than in the male stereotype priming condition. Some differences in performance between men and women in the male stereotype condition are present, with males performing better, but only by a small margin.

16. So these studies confirm that there is more to performance in a certain field than actual ability.

17. So, if it’s not a matter of ability, why are women under-represented in scientific fields? Self-efficacy issues, as explored above, probably give the best indication, from a sociocognitive perspective.

18. Other factors (more on the sociostructural side) are present though: longer workweeks/days, incompatibility of lab/research-driven work where timing is critical and family life, women still bearing the brunt of domestic responsibilities even while involved in full-time work, sexual harassment, increased visibility (which is a double-edged sword: female scientists may make more of an impression, but any mistakes they make are also easily recalled), and not being seen as “feminine” if working in an non-traditional field, etc. Many of these factors are not restricted to science-based occupations.

So this is the basic gist of what I found. It’s actually really good to see psychology take an interest in social factors and to recognise problems faced by women rather than normalising these issues or attributing them to neural properties and organisation. The women most of the studies looked at were of a certain age, class, race, culture, etc like I mentioned before – it would have been very nice, but too much to ask for I suppose, to see the juxtaposition of different characteristics being examined in conjunction with gender – for example, the effect of socioeconomic status on gendered test performance.

Of course, it’s not just women’s potential not being fully realised that prompted all this research. In order for companies/research centres/countries to remain scientifically and technologically competitive, they need a larger pool of talented individuals to draw from – which is why at least some of this research was commissioned/funded. Viva capitalism!

And another note of personal interest – an overwhelming majority of the papers on gender differences in terms of ability and occupational pursuits have female authors. This is unsurprising, as the authors (themselves women in science-related fields) would have inevitably come up against some of these barriers, whereas many of these issues would have probably never occurred to most of their male peers.

It should go without saying that this summary (and this blog) is my intellectual property and that using any part of it without proper acknowledgements, referencing and my permission is plagiarism – so don’t do it!

1. I find it amusing that my “outline” of the lit review is actually over two thirds of the total number of words of the actual review…
2. I don’t have any references handy for the sex/gender distinction, and I haven’t looked at it from a psychology perspective yet. Generally, “sex” refers to the biology of sexual organs and characteristics, while “gender” refers to the complex performance tied into the supposed representation of biological gender. Both are also different to “sexuality”, which refers to sexual preference(s) and practices. All three factors are cultural constructs that defy simple classification and division (which hasn’t stopped people from trying), and they can all work independently of each other. One of the best-known quotes that sums up the performativity of gender belongs to Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
3. A great paper on the social cognitive theory of gender development is: Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review, 106(4), 676-713.
4. Teig, S., & Susskind, J. E. (2008). Truck driver or nurse? The impact of gender roles and occupational status on children’s occupational preferences. Sex Roles, 58(11-12), 848-863.
5. A good discussion on self-efficacy beliefs in: Bussey & Bandura, 1999 and in: Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Vittorio Caprara, G., & Pastorelli, C. (2001). Self-efficacy beliefs as shapers of children’s aspirations and career trajectories. Child Development, 72(1), 187-206.
6. Stereotype threat study discussed in: Lesko, A. C., & Corpus, J. H. (2006). Discounting the Difficult: How High Math-Identified Women Respond to Stereotype Threat. Sex Roles, 54(1-2), 113-125.
7. Stereotype priming study discussed in: Ortner, T. M., & Sieverding, M. (2008). Where are the gender differences? Male priming boosts spatial skills in women. Sex Roles, 59(3-4), 274-281.

This is not the complete reference list I used for the lit review. I can post the whole list if anyone feels like doing some reading on the topic. I used 12 papers for the lit review but read about double that number, and in total I have 38 references on this topic in my EndNote library.


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