Like a sand-castle crumbling away in the rising tide, the once-popular idea that there are innate gender differences in science and maths aptitude is being undermined by a succession of new research findings.
Earlier this year, for example, Stephen Ceci and colleagues sifted through more than 400 relevant journal articles and concluded that far from there being any evidence for a sex-linked difference in science aptitude, the principal factor affecting the relative absence of women in science is their life choices, especially in relation to having children.
Now a new study, by Brian Nosek and colleagues, has looked at the number of people in different countries who hold implicit gender-science stereotypes, and compared this with gender differences in international school science test scores. The researchers' finding is that the two are mutually reinforcing - a culture's implicit belief that females are not associated with science can actually harm girls' and women's science performance, they argue.
To recap, if something about being female really does predispose a person to be weaker at science, then across the world, girls should under-perform, on average, relative to boys. However, whilst this is true in some countries, other countries actually show the opposite pattern, with girls outperforming boys.
Inspired by such observations, Nosek's team wondered whether cultural beliefs about gender and science might negatively affect girls' science performance. They used a version of the implicit association test, hosted on a website, to record implicit beliefs about gender and science among more than half a million people from 34 countries. By allocating categories (e.g. "male-related words" and "science-related words") to either the same or different response keys, the test shows how easily people associate those categories in their mind. Around the world, 70 per cent of participants exhibited an implicit stereotype - associating science with males more than females.
The researchers then looked at international science test scores recorded in 1999 and 2003 for children aged about 12 years. They found a correlation with the implicit stereotype scores, so that in those countries where more people held stereotyped beliefs about gender and science, girls tended to under-perform at science relative to boys.
Taken in the context of previous research showing that awareness of gender stereotypes can harm people's performance (e.g. girls perform worse at maths after being reminded of the stereotype that females are inferior at maths), the researchers said their correlational findings support the idea that a culture's implicit beliefs about science stereotypes can affect girls' science performance in a mutually reinforcing fashion.
"National policy initiatives addressing both factors simultaneously stand the best chance to maximise national scientific achievement," they said. "Education campaigns attempting to bolster women's participation and performance must overcome the pervasive implicit stereotypes that are already embodied in individual minds."
Nosek, B., Smyth, F., Sriram, N., Lindner, N., Devos, T., Ayala, A., Bar-Anan, Y., Bergh, R., Cai, H., Gonsalkorale, K., Kesebir, S., Maliszewski, N., Neto, F., Olli, E., Park, J., Schnabel, K., Shiomura, K., Tulbure, B., Wiers, R., Somogyi, M., Akrami, N., Ekehammar, B., Vianello, M., Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2009). National differences in gender-science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (26), 10593-10597 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809921106
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.