October 17, 2007
Outnumbered: Women in math and science uncomfortable in minority
By Rachel Tompa
Even the best female scientists and mathematicians can feel uncomfortable when their male peers outnumber them, a recent study by Stanford psychologists has revealed.
"Subtle situational cues can have large effects," said Mary Murphy, the study's lead author, who recently earned a doctorate from Stanford and is now a National Science Foundation postdoctoral scholar at Northwestern University.
Her research findings, published in the October issue of Psychological Science, show that when women are in the minority in social and academic settings involving math and science, areas where stereotypes against them already exist, they feel intimidated and discouraged from participating. Even competent women in these fields feel threatened and anxious when outnumbered, Murphy said.
"This is just like what Sandra Day O'Connor said she felt on the Supreme Court before Ruth Bader Ginsberg got there, that sense of scrutiny and pressure," said Claude Steele, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and a co-author of the study.
Murphy's study suggests a simple explanation for the gender imbalance in certain fields: Low numbers of women in math and science discourage other women from entering math and science. She also questioned whether the immediate physical environment women encounter in such situations could play a role in thwarting their equal participation.
"Besides biological or innate explanations, or socialization explanations, could there be situational explanations?" she said.
For the study, Murphy selected a group of 47 Stanford undergraduates, 25 men and 22 women, all math or science majors in their junior or senior year. "They are equally able," Murphy said. "They are already doing well majoring in math, science or engineering, they have equal desires to do math and science, and they already identify with these areas."
Murphy showed the students 7-minute videos advertising a fictitious Stanford math, science and engineering conference that portrayed about 150 undergraduates attending lectures, working in groups and socializing. Half the group saw a video in which the ratio of men to women was equal. The other half saw a video portraying three men to every one woman, numbers that Murphy said reflect the actual ratio in many math, science and engineering fields.
Murphy attached electrodes to students' fingers and chests to monitor their physical responses to the videos, and asked them questions to determine how much they felt they would belong at the conference and their desire to participate in such an event in the future. Men and women who saw the gender-balanced video had similar responses to men who saw the unbalanced ratio video. But women who saw the video with more men in it responded differently. While watching the short clip, their hearts beat faster, their blood pressure rose and they sweated more, Murphy said. When asked to respond to the video, the women said they had less desire to participate in the conference and felt less like they belonged than the women who viewed the gender-balanced video. They also remembered more details about the video and their physical surroundings, which Murphy and Steele said reflected enhanced vigilance due to anxiety.
"The situation really does affect those who have every motivation to be in these environments, but the cues are telling them they may not belong," Murphy said.
She stressed that such responses may occur only in environments in which gender stereotypes are already in place. A woman in a predominantly male English department, for example, might not feel the same kind of threat, she said.
Universities can play an influential role in changing such traditional environments by hiring more female math and science faculty, according to Murphy. In the meantime, she said, female faculty mentoring female students is critical, Murphy says.
Londa Schiebinger, professor of history of science and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, said Murphy's findings are an excellent contribution to the field. "This research really helps us understand that the problem is not with women innately, but has to do with the kinds of institutions that have been developed over centuries," she said.
Psychology Associate Professor James Gross also authored the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Rachel Tompa is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.