Hosting 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