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?