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Ladies of Science - Responding to "The Stereotype Threat"

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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This week, we’re celebrating the Ladies of Science with videos, blogs, memes, and more. We want you to meet a woman with a PhD in neuroscience who also happens to star on network television’s most popular TV show. And an evangelical Christian woman whose mission in life is to spread the word about climate change. Here at “Secret Life,” we’ve profiled female scientists who are beauty queens, professional wrestlers, roller derby referees, and NFL cheerleaders.

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Why focus just on the ladies? Scientists like Marie Curie may have opened the door for women to enter STEM fields, but notably few girls are running through it. In the U.S., women account for only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, even though female graduates hold 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. Although women account for close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of the STEM jobs.

What are we doing wrong?

Research shows that societal beliefs and learning environment have a tangible impact on girls’ achievements in science and math. One cause may be the “stereotype threat,” a psychological and physiological response in which individuals being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype fear doing something to confirm the stereotype, impacting their performance. The stereotype that boys are better than girls in math and science has been shown to measurably lowers girls’ test performances. Researchers also believe that stereotypes impact girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.

While a lot has been done to combat the explicit stereotyping of women in STEM, implicit biases persist, even in individuals who actively reject stereotypes. Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University, has developed a virtual laboratory for exploring unconscious beliefs about gender and science stereotypes. Nearly half a million people from around the world have taken the test over the course of the past 16 years and nearly 70 percent readily associate “male” with science and “female” with arts. [Editor’s note: Banaji’s test is available online. Find out about your own implicit biases here .]

If our unconscious beliefs are part of the problem, how do we stop them?

These findings, published in a report in Women in Science, Technology, and Engineering , come with a call to expose girls to successful female role models in math and science in order to counter the negative stereotype. Further, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that students who learn about the characteristics of the scientists who developed science theories, and not just the theories themselves, remembered the material better, and developed less-stereotyped images of scientists.

In other words, we shouldn’t just teach scientific theories. We should also talk about the people who come up with them (see below).

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.