When LSA sophomore Moli Yin looks around the room during one of her math classes, she sometimes doesn’t see many other female faces.
Yin, who plans to major in mathematical biology, estimated that some of her math classes are about 10 percent women. There are only 83 female math majors at the University – compared to 222 men, according to math department records.
A new study co-authored by Psychology Prof. Denise Sekaquaptewa suggests that women’s performance on math tests can be influenced by stereotypes that they might not even know they hold. Such stereotypes, coupled with a strong sense of gender identity, can cause female students to shy away from a math-related career.
Sekaquaptewa found that this is the case even if the students explicitly reject the stereotypes.
Sekaquaptewa’s study tested people to see how quickly they connected two words, such as math and male or women and literature. The less time it takes someone to link the two words, the stronger the researchers deem the subject’s implicit stereotypes.
The study measured 63 female college calculus students’ levels of implicit and explicit gender stereotyping, gender identification – which is the rate at which students agree with statements like “being a woman is an important part of my self identity” – course performance and career goals. High levels of both gender identification and implicit stereotyping predicted lower grades on the final exam.
The study accounted for students’ different abilities by comparing math SAT scores and a midterm course exam taken before the study began.
Sekaquaptewa said that high levers of unintended stereotyping could remove the protection from low performance offered by low levels of gender identification.
Low levels of both factors were necessary to predict higher exam performance. But either low gender identification or low implicit stereotyping was enough to predict an increased desire to pursue a math-related career. The study, published in last month’s issue of the Journal of American Psychological Science, notes that it might be easier to reject stereotypes in the conscious setting of making career decisions than in the behavioral context of taking an exam.
Sekaquaptewa said implicit stereotypes contribute to the under representation of women in math and related fields like science and engineering.
Lower-level college math classes have roughly equal gender representation, Sekaquaptewa said. But that changes at high levels.
“As we go up, something happens along the way,” she said. “By the time we get to women faculty in math and engineering, we’re looking at about 7 percent women.” Thirty-two percent of actuarial math majors and 30 percent of mathematical science students are women. Only eight of 69 (around 12 percent) honors and pure math sub-plan students are women. These are the fields most likely to lead to graduate research in math or science, said Carolyn Dean, the math department’s chair of outreach and recruiting.
Faculty figures mirror the student population. Just eight of the University’s 68 tenure-track math professors are female.
Dean expressed surprise at the low numbers of female math majors.
She said that up until about five years ago, the department was approaching gender parity, at least at the undergraduate level. But then the numbers hit a plateau.
Dean said she encourages informal mentoring of female students to encourage their mathematical ambitions.
“Those efforts add up,” she said. “Mostly because the numbers are so small.”
While formal welcome receptions for women in math were important five or 10 years ago, Dean said that many incoming female graduate students see such events as perpetuating a stereotype.
Cinda-Sue Davis, the director of the Women in Science and Engineering program, pointed to a chilly climate that she said is “not particularly welcoming” for women in science and math fields.
The WISE program conducts outreach to elementary and high school students to encourage them to consider math and science careers. It also holds workshops for undergraduate and graduate women.
Davis said women’s performance in science and math classes often exceeds men’s. Sekaquaptewa and Davis both emphasized that women’s underrepresentation in science and math fields is not due to a lack of ability, but is the fault of social-psychological factors.
Administrators looking to encourage more women to go into math might learn from the case of Breanna Turcsanyi, who graduated from the University in April with a degree in math. She said she was one of only two other female students in the pure math program that year. At first, she wasn’t planning on pursuing a career in advanced math, but instead considering becoming a high school math teacher or computer programmer.
Her summer research in the math department as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program changed that. Now she is waiting for responses from math doctoral programs where she hopes to do research on number theory.
“Once I experienced (research), it made me realize it’s not as impossible or scary as it sounds,” she said.
A math department-sponsored trip to a women’s undergraduate mathematics conference also helped convince her to apply to doctoral programs.
“It was really cool to see so many girls as interested in math as I am and just to realize that (graduate research) really was a possibility,” Turcsanyi said.
Are you gender biased?
To test whether you are guilty of implicit gender stereotyping, visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/.
University Psychology Prof. Denise Sekaquaptewa and fellow researcher Amy Kiefer have posted a sample of the Implicit Association Test they used in their study to measure how quickly participants paired words like “men” or “women” to “calculate” or “literature.” Similar tests are used to examine unconscious racial stereotyping.