College Guide


July 16, 2012 11:00 AM The Stereotype Threat

By Daniel Luzer


Why aren’t there very many women in science fields? Despite earning more bachelor’s degrees, and even PhDs, in math and since fields than ever before, women still hold less than a quarter of STEM jobs in the U.S.

Why? It might have something to do with how colleagues treat women who have science jobs. According to research by University of British Columbia psychologist Toni Schmader and Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona, it might be something called the “Stereotype Threat.” As Doug Barry at Jezebel explains:

Using a device called an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) that the Stasi would have been super jealous of, Schmader and Mehl collected daily soundbites (about 5 an hour and 70 a day) of women working in science-related fields. They found that, whereas men seemed more energized when discussing their work, when women talked to their male colleagues about work, they seemed disengaged. When women talked to other female colleagues about work, however, they seemed engaged, and when they talked to men about leisure activities, the anxieties that marred previous work-related conversations vanished. Schmader and Mehl looked for instances of men being overtly hostile or nasty to their female colleagues as a possible explanation for this disconnect, but, finding that all the conversations were perfectly civil, they realized that there was another far more subtle phenomenon causing women who’d endured grueling Ph.D. programs to suddenly cut their science careers short.

This is some pretty subjective research but, well, there it is. Apparently this caused researchers to conclude that,

The stereotype threat made women second guess themselves when they talked to a male colleague because there’s an implicit cultural assumption that men are just naturally more inclined towards the sciences than women. That, coupled with the fact that the sciences are dominated by men threw female scientists off-balance in their work-related conversations with male colleagues.

This is an interesting, and potentially very significant development in how gender operates in the workplace. Some commentators on the Barry piece spoke about experiences in laboratories where head academics would regularly talk about the importance of getting more women involved, and then continue to marginalize the actual women on staff.

Still, it’s best to keep this in perspective. The stereotype threat might be real, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why women leave.

They may be exiting for much more practical reasons. Maybe women are dropping out of the profession because there just aren’t any damn jobs. [Images via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Bob on July 16, 2012 7:36 PM:

    The Department of Commerce report on which this is based is total garbage. The easiest way to show a gender disparity in STEM professions is to cherry pick which occupations are considered to be STEM and which aren't. By omitting health professions and the social sciences one eliminates a major component of female STEM employment.

  • Hieronymous Braintree on July 17, 2012 4:04 AM:

    Calling the "research" "subjective" is putting it mildly. This reminds me of all the "research" that supposedly showed boys stampeding girls out of good grades and college at a time when college-bound girls were first starting to significantly outnumber college-bound boys. The sound bites that get used in these sorts of "studies" are overwhelmingly ones that would seem to confirm the researcher's desired conclusion.

    Feminism and crap science are one of western culture's most truly committed relationships.

  • IT on July 17, 2012 9:23 AM:

    Social science is not a STEM field. Neither is "health care". (which Bob uses as code for "nursing"). While the subjective social study may be crap, what is fact that of my PhD class from a top-10 research university was 50% women ( which some of the male students openly disparaged as "affirmative action" despite our top GRE scores and degrees from top schools ) yet most of those women have left science fields. Some of it is family, sure, but some of it is the pervasive pattern of small slights noted by Virginia Valian's study "why so slow?".

    I am now a tenured full professor at a major R1 university. I am the only woman of my rank in my program. I publish more papers and have more grants than my male colleagues. I don't have kids. But I'm paid less. Why do you suppose that is?