Summary: March 21, 2017 Discussion

Philip Greenspoon presented “It STEMs from childhood: Gender stereotypes adopted by children as obstacles to eventual participation in STEM fields.” Here is his summary of the talk:

I began by discussing the mean gap between male and female students in high school math performance and how on average globally boys perform better by this measure (Machin and Pekkarinen 2008) – but that breaking the gap down by country reveals large differences across countries (Guiso et al. 2008), suggesting differences may be due to cultural or environmental effects. I then turned to variance ratios in math performance in which boys tend to have larger variances than girls in math performance, suggesting that the upper tail of math performance is predominated by boys. Breaking down the occurrence of exceptional math performance by country, however, reveals that countries differ in their representation of girls in the upper tail, with countries having higher GGI indices (a measure of gender equality) having more gender balance in exceptional math performance (Guiso et al. 2008, Kane and Mertz 2012).

I then turned to possible causes of unequal math performance among children, focusing on the role of stereotypes. I presented results from a paper (Bian et al. 2017) that showed that by age 6, girls are rating members of their own gender as less brilliant than boys are, and that by this age girls are showing less interest in activities which emphasize intelligence. Next, I turned to a study (Leslie et al. 2015) showing that how much a field is perceived as emphasizing brilliance negatively correlated with how many PhDs were awarded to women in that field in the US in 2011, and that this was true in the sciences as well as the arts.

Finally, I considered one of the psychological effects of internalized stereotypes namely stereotype threat, and presented data about how stereotype threat may compromise math performance for women doing math (Spencer et al. 1999), as well as how viewing differences in math performance as genetic as opposed to experiential may also compromise math performance in women (Dar-Nimrod and Heine 2006). Finally, I presented two studies on how our understanding of stereotype threat may be used to engineer interventions to alleviate stereotype threat – one in which students are encouraged to either view intelligence as malleable or to not attribute setbacks to their own intrinsic abilities (Good et al. 2003) and the other in which students read biographies of successful women prior to taking a math test (McIntyre et al. 2005).