Friday, January 2, 2009

Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women’s Math Performance

ResearchBlogging.orgHosting the December 2008 Praxis Carnival got me thinking again (partly courtesy of submissions by PodBlack Cat and Dr Isis) about the representation of women in science. When a seasonal clean out of one of the many folders filled with PDFs that I "really ought to read some time" turned up this paper, I figured to blag it.

It's not controversial that in many sciences, including mathematics, women are under-represented compared to the ratios in the population at large. There's a lot of discussion over the questions of what precise mix of factors might explain this imbalance, and what sorts of policies might reduce it.

This study looked at women's performance at mathematics. The subjects completed a test including two mathematics sections separated by a reading comprehension section. The middle section was an experimental manipulation, with one of the following four essays:

(G) This essay argued that there were mathematics-related sex differences, and that the explanation was genetic.

(E) This essay argued that there were mathematics-related sex differences, and that the explanation was experiential.

(NS) This essay argued that there were no mathematics-related sex differences.

(S) This essay primed the question of sex without making reference to differences in mathematical ability.

The hypothesis was that in the second test participants in condition (G) and (S) would underperform those in condition (E) and (NS). This is just what they found, a result that was replicated in a schematically similar study where the manipulation was heard, rather than read. See the figure below.

This isn't surprising at all - it's consistent with a pile of established social psychology on the effectiveness of stereotypes. But it's definitely important.

Among other notices of this little paper, see The CIRTL Cafe.

I. Dar-Nimrod, S. J. Heine (2006). Exposure to Scientific Theories Affects Women's Math Performance Science, 314 (5798), 435-435 DOI: 10.1126/science.1131100


Anonymous said...

Nice to see the bunch of cool posts.

I wasn't sure here what was up with the experiential condition. Since it's also priming sex differences, why should we expect to see less effect? It's interesting that specifically arguing for genetic differences doesn't have more effect than standard stereotype threat.


Doctor Spurt said...

Thanks, John. The paper is a fairly cryptic one pager -- as so often in SCIENCE -- I should look for a more extensive write up. Even so, it seems to me that the hypothesis was that priming for experiential differences would have less effect than priming for genetic ones, perhaps because the thought that any difference was experiential would be empowering or motivating in some way. There's no independent measure in this study of how plausible subjects found the ND condition, so it's not entirely clear what to make of the reported (E) and (ND) equivalence.

podblack said...

Oh, thank you! :) Thank you also for finding this paper, I will go check it out too! :)

Doctor Spurt said...

Splendid! I've got more stuff on stereotypes in my reading pile too...

Aldebrn said...

Can it be shown that studies like this don't just capture the fact that bored participants don't really care about math tests? And the readings, rather than "priming," either just give them an excuse to slack off or expose the researchers' expectations and encourage the participants to meet them?

Without auxiliary research that shows this kind of study is immune from this major defect, I can't at all believe the results. *Maybe* if the experiment was done on a cohort of women mathematics graduate students as a part of a serious exam (for a course, or for their degrees), the findings would be more believable.

Any insight will be much appreciated.

Doctor Spurt said...

Aldebrn, if any effect is a boredom effect, we need to say why the boredom wasn't homogenously distributed, given that subjects were randomly assigned to conditions. The four essays used in the middle section of the test (see the supplementary materials) are highly similar in respect of length, difficulty, tone, number of arguments offered, etc.

That's not to say it wouldn't be worth trying this again with real incentives. As a behaviourist, I'm always uneasy about tasks with no significant incentive.

Aldebrn said...

Dr Spurt, thanks for the info. You nailed what I meant: I have trouble believing the results (which ought to apply to any subject: math, science, history, etc.) because of the lack of incentives. That's what I mean by boredom: I can imagine myself being bored to death on a math test.

Again: is there any previous work that shows that no-incentive tests like this can allow us to make meaningful conclusions about the effectiveness of stereotypes (or 'scientific theories' like in this study).

Also (I'm a complete noob at this field), has any previous work shown that reading between the two math sections doesn't affect performance on the second half? (It would have been great if a 5th group were given the newspaper or something completely unrelated to read.)

Doctor Spurt said...

Hell again Aldebrn. There's a pile of research on the effects of stereotypes going back at least three decades. (Googling the words [stereotype women math] should get you a decent starting sample.) I'm going to blog more of the stuff on women and mathematics over the next few months.

Remember that the first and second half of the test were the same for all subjects, and the middle section very carefully designed to differ only in the intended respects. Subjects were randomly assigned to conditions, and there were decent numbers of subjects. Sure it's *possible* that only the easily bored ended up in conditions (G) and (S), but it's *very* unlikely. When a bunch of similar entities go through processes that are pretty much the same except for one feature (A), and behave differently at the end (B), it's perfectly reasonable to infer that (A) explains (B).