Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science

I recently discovered this Science article: Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science, which reports a study that improved women’s success in a college physics class using a very simple affirmation exercise.

Image: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/
Image: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/

There were 339 students in the study (both genders). Half were to write about their own values like friends and family (the values affirmation task), and the other half wrote about other people’s values (the control group). They only did the exercise twice – once at the very beginning of the 15-week course, and once a few weeks into the course, before the midterm.

These graphs show their results:

Graph A shows the overall scores when all tests are averaged together. In the control group, men far outperformed women. In the values affirmation group, however, the difference between the two groups was much smaller. Graph B shows the scores just on the end of the semester exam: this graph that shows that among the students who performed the values affirmation task, women actually scored higher than men, whereas the men still outperformed women in the control group. Notably, men's scores do not change depending on the group they're in.
Graph A shows the overall scores when all tests are averaged together. In the control group, men far outperformed women. In the values affirmation group, however, the difference between the two groups was much smaller. Graph B shows the scores just on the end of the semester exam: this graph that shows that among the students who performed the values affirmation task, women actually scored higher than men, whereas the men still outperformed women in the control group. Notably, men’s scores do not change depending on the group they’re in.

Why did the value affirmation task only improve females’ performance? The authors claim that the value affirmation task protected women from the common stereotype that they’re not as competent in STEM fields as men. I guess that would mean that men didn’t improve because they weren’t facing the psychological threat of the stereotype to begin with. It seems to me that the link between a cultural stereotype and writing about one’s own values would be pretty weak – the two seem to be only distantly related, so I’m still skeptical about their explanation.

It also surprises me to see such a difference between women who completed the values affirmation task and those who did not because the control task was actually very similar. The students in this group still wrote about values, but they were someone else’s values instead of their own. The take home message is that resiliency against a stereotype is bolstered only by reflecting on our own values.

These results suggest that a simple task (they only completed the values affirmation writing task twice) can have huge effects on women’s ability to overcome a stereotype (the article also cites other similar studies that have successfully explored a similar task with other populations who are likely to feel burdened by stereotypes). Could a simple psychological intervention really shape the demographics in STEM fields?

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6 thoughts on “Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science

  1. Very interesting study! My only question is why the women perform significantly worse than men in the control group. That doesn’t seem correct. I wonder if they validated that data?

    1. They actually have a few sources that show that men typically outperform women in physics, and I think they had some data from this specific class in previous years. Plus they sort of situate the claim that women are at a disadvantage by pointing out the gender gap in STEM professions in general (not that this is indicative of women having a lower potential, but at least that an intervention focused on women is warranted). They would claim that the pressure of the stereotype causes the women in the control group to do worse than their male peers. Not sure that I buy into that explanation 100%, but I do think that result’s valid.

  2. I just finished up my Research Methods in Psych class, and in the last two classes everyone presented their individual research projects. Coincidentally, there were 2 or 3 girls in my class who researched this same topic. One administered math tests to a control and experimental group, and handed out either a neutral article, or one that claimed that “anyone can do math!”. Another girl verbally told the participants that it has been found that men generally perform higher on this type of math test, and the control groups were not told anything. I think their results were not quite significant (due to the limited sample size in pooling from Freshmen Intro to Psych courses), but the results were at least on the right track. If this is the case, then what does it mean for colleges, and all of society?? That women need a “pep talk” before every math exam, or women who work as engineers need a reminder from their boss every day that they are valued just as much as their male counterparts? I definitely agree that the stereotype exists, but I do not have any ideas as to how this can be remedied without constant reinforcement…

    1. That’s very cool that some classmates got to try this out! I agree that if women do need some sort of pep talk to perform comparably to men, we have a BIG problem. I could see this extending into physical realms too- maybe female athletes or firefighters might underperform when they’re in an environment with men? And maybe male chefs and nurses would benefit from the same confidence-boosting intervention? It’s cool that we’re learning that these interventions are helpful, but the next step is figuring out a solution that doesn’t require intervention! Constantly reminding women that they’re as good as men seems like that could be detrimental too – after all, if someone feels the need to point out that I’m as good as someone else, it might be reinforcing the idea that there’s something different about us too. We still have quite a ways to go, I guess.

  3. In your study above, affirming values provided protection from stereotypes that women aren’t as competent in STEM fields. As for a better explanation, it is perhaps better explained by Sian Beilock in Choke.

    I believe she talked about a study where black students were dealing with stereotypes that blacks aren’t as intelligent (the test would say, “This test you will take is an indication of a person’s intelligence”). Affirming values was done with a control and experimental group, just like you said above. And the affirmed-values group scored much higher than the control group, at a level comparable to those who never had to deal with stereotypes in the first place.

    Beilock’s explanation was that affirming one’s values gave one a strong sense of identity. Like, I am this person who values such and such (honesty, treating others kindly, etc.) and there is much more to my life than how I perform on this one test. OUTCOME INDEPENDENCE thus freed their mental headspace from worrying about possibly confirming or proving wrong the stereotypes. This allowed them to fully concentrate their mental energies on the test at hand. This is the so-called protection from stereotypes that you said- freedom from worrying about confirming or proving that they’re real.

    I don’t know if there was a particular study done on this but I believe Beilock also said that athletes who affirm their values in this manner, before a big game, will choke less. There’s just more to life than whether or not they sink that game-winning shot.

    1. I had never thought about applying stereotype threat to athletic events, but that makes a lot of sense. One question I always have about threat stereotype, though… does thinking about my values still work if I know that whatever I’m telling myself is supposed to thwart stereotype threat? I’m skeptical that it would work in that case, but maybe I’ll try affirming my values when I go to my fitness class tomorrow… Just in case 🙂

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