Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock Ph.D.


Little Steps, Big Effects: Closing the Gender Gap in Science

Fifteen minutes can boost women’s performance in college physics

Posted Dec 01, 2010

It's no secret that men outnumber women in many science and math disciplines, with this gender disparity increasing as the level of advancement increases as well. And, the gap goes beyond number of bodies. Take physics as an example. In college level physics, women tend to earn lower exam grades than men. Women, on average, also score lower on standardized tests of physics knowledge. The question is, why?

Everyone from former Harvard presidents (Larry Summers) to New York Times columnists (see John Tierney's column on the subject) have chimed in with their own ideas as to why this might be the case. Now, new research suggests that, rather than simply pondering the divide, there is actually something simple we can do about abolishing it.

In a paper published last week in Science, a University of Colorado research team showed that a simple fifteen minute psychological intervention in a challenging introductory CU physics course substantially reduced the gender gap in class and increased women's modal grade from a C to a B.

Here is how the experiment went:

Twice during the first four weeks of the semester, roughly 400 physics students (283 men and 116 women) were randomly assigned to either write about values that were important to them (such as relationships with friends and family) or values that might be important to someone else. Each exercise lasted 15 minutes and neither the teachers nor the students had any idea about the purpose of the study or the conditions involved. Also, as part of an on-line survey during the second week of class, students were asked about how much they endorsed the stereotype that men perform better than women in physics. That's it.

At the end of the semester, the researchers looked at scores on the three midterms and on the final exam. They also tallied students' scores on a nationally normed standardized test of physics knowledge (The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation) given at the end of the semester.

When the exam scores were computed, something rather striking emerged. For those students who wrote about values that were important to someone else (the control group), women underperformed men by about 10% across all the exams. However, for those students who affirmed values that were important to themselves (the values-affirmation group), this gender difference was negligible. Scores on the standardized FMCE test showed the same pattern of results, with control group women underperforming men, while women in the values-affirmation group slightly outperformed their male counterparts. Not surprisingly, it was women who tended to endorse the stereotype that men outperform women in physics that got the biggest benefit from the affirmation intervention.

Importantly, the researchers made sure that this reduction in the gender gap was mainly driven by an increase in women's scores (the modal female grade jumped from a C to a B), rather than a reduction in men's scores. This is important as a psychological intervention that reduces the gender gap by driving down men's scores rather than raising women's doesn't really seem to be working towards the goal of getting all students to perform up to their potential. This brings us to the question of why such a simple intervention works in the first place.

Admittedly, psychology labs across the country - including my own Human Performance Laboratory - are still trying to figure out the entire answer to this question, but we have some preliminary ideas. Simply put, because of the stereotype that men are better than women at math and science, many women seem to walk around in these disciplines worrying that the stereotype could apply to them. As I have talked about in this blog before, these worries eat at important attention, thinking, and reasoning resources that could otherwise be devoted to learning in the classroom and showing what you know on a test. However, when women have a chance to affirm their core values in this threatening environment, they feel better about themselves, which causes them to worry less and restores the brainpower needed to perform at their best. Importantly, as this new study shows, it doesn't take a whole lot of money, time or resources to do this. Just a couple of 15 minute exercises can have a big effect.

For more on how pressures in the classroom can undermine performance, check out my new book Choke.

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Miyake, A. et al. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330, 1234-1237.

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