Mind your words – how stereotypes affect female performance at maths

By Ed Yong | August 22, 2008 10:00 am


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOn 14 January 2005,
Lawrence Summers (right), president of Harvard University spoke of the reasons behind the disproportionate lack of women in top-end science and engineering jobs. Avoiding suggestions of discrimination, he offered two explanations – unwillingness to commit to the 80-hour weeks needed for top level positions and, more controversially, a lower “intrinsic aptitude” for the fields. According to Summers, research showed that genetic differences between the sexes led to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end”.

LawrenceSummers.jpgFor years, scientists have battled over the evidence for sex differences in scientific ability, using genetics, psychology and social sciences as their weapons. But often, they forget that this debate does not rage on in isolation – it is heard and processed by scores of young female scientists trying to make their mark in the field. A year after Summers’ incendiary remarks, a psychological study showed just how pernicious comments like these can be on this group of listeners.

Stereotypes famously reinforce themselves because people respond to them by acting out the stereotype. Black Americans perform worse in intelligence tests if their race is drawn to their attention. And in the UK, the media portrayal of our teenagers as boorish hooded thugs risks driving them further down that route.

But Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven Heine at the University of British Columbia reasoned that stereotypes are even more catastrophically self-fulfilling if genetics are thrown into the mix. Regardless of what geneticists know, a large proportion of the public still view genes as inescapable agents of pre-determination, setting your life and actions down a course you have little say over.

They tested this idea by giving a group of women a comprehension test followed by a maths test. In all cases, the comprehension passage suggested a sex difference in mathematical ability and provided varying explanations.

If the groups were told that this difference was down to varying experience, or that it was actually non-existent, they performed equally well in the subsequent maths test. But their performance fell dramatically if they were offered genetic explanations for the gender gap, or even if they were given reasons based on gender stereotypes that were nothing to do with maths.

These results are compelling. They suggest that women are unfazed by experiential accounts of the gender difference, and perform to almost their full ability. Genetic accounts are more damaging, and without specific explanations, the women seemed to assume these types of explanations by default.

A word of caution

Clearly, those who launch into the gender-difference debate must be very careful about their words. Invoking the spectre of genetic predetermination like Summers did can have very real and very potent consequences.

For high-ranking scientific figures, there is a deeper message that goes beyond the equality of the sexes. There is a belief among some scientific circles that debate is always justified – that consensus is a stagnancy of the mind that should be occasionally stirred up by brandished opinion. Dr Summers himself began his controversial address by saying that he wanted to make “attempts at provocation”. Surely, this was not what he had in mind.

Scientific results, and opinions based on these, turn into live grenades when thrown into debates with little regard for social ramifications. As Dar-Nimrod and Heine’s study shows, the effect can be just as devastating. We are living in a time of controversial emerging technologies like stem cell research and nanotechnology and global crises like climate change. Public engagement is becoming every more important and it is crucial for those who deal in science to maintain a sense of the social fabric that their work and words exist in.

Scientists, journal editors and journalists alike need to choose their words carefully. The price of misrepresented data and callous comments is an increasing lack of trust from both the public and the scientists of the future at a time when their support is needed more than ever. Those concerned must understand the consequences of their words and to take responsibility for them. ‘Being provocative’ just isn’t going to cut it.

Dr Summers described his views as an “unfortunate truth” and he was right – just over a year later, he tendered his resignation as President following a vote of no-confidence.

Reference: Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1131100


Comments (10)

  1. DianeG
  2. Pete Rooke

    genes as inescapable agents of pre-determination, setting your life and actions down a course
    They should be force fed Sartre’s Existentialism & Humanism.

  3. Lynching Summers was a good way of making clear that a good many folks at Harvard (a) didn’t want too consider the possibility of a fact they might not like, and (b) confuse epistemology with politics in ways just as asinine as they did over Ed Wilson 30 years ago. If were serious about achieving political equality, we should want to know what we’re up against, not engage in ostentatious posturing over our refusal to look.

  4. “and perform to almost their full ability”; did they use men as control?
    We ostracized Shockley, James Watson, and now Dr Summers. Not all women are Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin. In general, women or blacks are lacking in recognition in scientific fields. They do excel in certain fields.
    Please don’t think of me as an MCP. But science should be free of bias, and facts should be accepted.

  5. Mars

    There are the facts and then there are the interpretations. It’s part of why its normally very easy for scientists to find information that says exactly what they wanted it to say when approaching a topic like this. What Summers did was entirely political and it was punished as such. I mean how would you like it if you were going to a school whose president stood up and said, “Well we’ve noticed that a lot of you aren’t being passed for no discernible reason but science says you should be bad at school anyway so I’m not going to worry about it?”

  6. Mars presents a nasty caricature of Summers’ view, neglecting facts of the matters with the virtuosity of an ID defender. Summers never advocated not worrying, and the forum in which he spoke had very specific properties.

  7. JPop

    The controversial opinion (backed by some pretty flawed research) that women are statistically inherently less good at ‘science’ (because, you know, all branches of science are exactly the same and every researcher must think in the same way) is something I have an issue with. Clearly.
    That said – Summers has a right to his opinions, and to express said opinions. The trouble is that he was speaking in his role as the president of an academic institution, (one which presumably has some female scientists in it) and not as a private individual. This research suggests that such public assertions may be more damaging than suspected – tell someone they’re dumb long enough, and they’ll believe you (to grossly oversimplify for rhetorical effect).
    However, the apologists need not worry. It’s hard enough to stop people who ARE directly involved in educating new scientists from expressing gender/race bias. People who aren’t are free to keep talking, self-fulfilling prophecies be damned.

  8. katie

    I’m a female, and I’m very well aware that there are fewer women than men in my field.
    Maybe it’s just my ego, but personally I get off on the fact that I do something very well that people of my gender generally don’t.
    Really…shouldn’t we all be grown up enough to realize that just because the –average– **INSERT PERSONAGE OF GROUP HERE** doesn’t do as well in **INSERT FIELD HERE**, doesn’t mean that any individual member of that group can’t kick the ass of someone in a group that generally does better?

  9. jay

    The ‘stereo type’ tests are dragged out periodically, as if they prove anything (other than a single incidence of test taking can possibly be tweaked by contrived circumstantial events… go figure). Tests like this say nothing, one way or another, about real life long term performance. (Can you imagine a requiremtn that people constantly be presented with positive stereotypes so they can effectively do their jobs?)
    What Summers, and Pinker for that matter, commented on is actually fairly commonly accepted, that the distribution of some characteristics (including standardized IQ tests) is wider in males than females (possibly with evolutionalry underpinnings) which may explain why there appear to be more males in both extreme ends.
    This has nothing do do with any individual woman or man’s characteristics, only that even with open opportunity, even numbers won’t appear all over.
    I suspect, however that IQ has much less to do with it, but temperment does. males are far more likely to be obsessive, which is a negative in social situations but can contribute to success in academia, science or arts.
    Of course there are plenty of women who can and do hold their own or excel in fields where men are more common (Danica Patrick anyone?).
    Evolutionarily, there was a genetic payoff for males who were aggressive and took risks (even though some did not survive, those that took the risks and did survive had a disproportionate contribution to the next generation). Genghis Khan had hundreds of offspring, whereas a female who set out to conquer the world would probably have made herself an evolutionary dead end.

  10. Jay: You’re reasoning is so flawed, and so ubiquitous among the vulgar evolutionists that a small comment here won’t make a dent of course. But what the H does Genghis have to do with a propensity for mathematics!? Leaping from “So-and-so killed and raped and conquered half the world, ergo all males are biologically more suited for science” is just mind-blowingly stupid.
    As an archaeologist and athropologist I fail to see (as do most in my field) why ability to form socially complex groups, multi-tasking, finding and processing a multitude of edible plants and catching animals both big and small – which might arguably be attributed to early human females – would necessarily lead to a poor mind to grasp complex scientific questions. And that is only if we accept the basic premise that our early life as hominids created glaring cognitive differences based on X- and Y-chromosomes – which is highly doubtful if we also take culture and social class into consideration.
    Most men are neither Genghis nor Einstein. Most women are neither Virginia Wolf nor Marie Curie. If you doubt that women can be as ruthless and megalomaniac as the worst Roman emperor, just pick up “A Short History of Byzantium” and be enlightened. Not all differences can be placed at the altar of gender.
    What the study Yong writes about shows is that cultural pressures shapes a lot about how much we dare to do. Whether the discrimination is about gender, race or social class makes no difference. The whole point is that these social messages are transmitted almost continually through young peoples lives, and that will influence many of their choices.
    And yes, not having a spouse willing to do all the cooking, cleaning, child rearing and act as an unpaid secretary will make it more difficult to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of Academia.


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