A recent illuminating New York Times article about gender bias in math and science makes an interesting point about human behavior:
The university women’s report cited research showing that girls’ performance suffers from any suggestion that they do poorly at math. In one experiment, college students with strong math backgrounds and similar abilities were divided into two groups and tested on math. One group was told that men perform better on the test, the other that there was no difference in performance between the sexes. Their results were starkly different: in the group told that men do better, men indeed did much better, with an average score of 25 compared with the women’s 5. In the group told there was no difference, women scored 17 and men 19.
Any suggestion of advantage based on sex affects results, the research shows, even where there is no cultural stereotype.
The upshot of that and another similar experiments seems to be: if you tell a mixed group “Men typically outperform women on this” the men rise to their heightened expectations and the women put less effort into it, meeting the lower expectations set for them.We humans learn our self-expectations from what our authority figures expect of us. If you grow up with a parent who expects you’ll end up in jail sooner or later, like the rest of the family, your chances of ending up in jail are heightened. If you’re expected to make As in school, your chances of doing that are heightened. Sure, eventually, we can learn to resent unfair (low or high) expectations and set our own self-expectations. But that takes more life experience than most teens have.
What happens when educators and occupational mentors are taught “Expect less of the women and girls”? They adjust their teaching methods – either they make less effort with the women and girls since they’re expecting little return on investment, or they overcompensate with remedial attention that doesn’t stimulate the students’ intellects. Or they try to make up a whole new curriculum designed to reach their idea of young women – little princesses who love shoes and can’t decide which suitor to marry. (Reminds me of what’s going so very wrong with gender segregated classes in public schools).
Further problems occur down the line. Even when girls aren’t actively discouraged by professors from going into their chosen profession, rational people tend to choose professions where they believe they’ll do well, right? This report also found that when girls and boys have the same scores on math exams, girls rate their math abilities lower than the boys rate their own. Just as stereotypes distort girls’ self-images of their bodies, they distort girls’ perceptions of their mental abilities, leading young women to choose professions and career paths they won’t find fulfilling.
The report also talks about how the ratio of boys to girls among precocious math students (as measured by SAT math scores) has shrunk so much in the past thirty years, it can’t be an evolutionary issue. Evolution doesn’t happen that fast. But cultural changes can turn on one generation.
And yet in 2005, the president of Harvard suggested that biology is the main factor in girls being less mathematically capable than boys, with socialization and discrimination as “lesser factors” in the issue.