Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gender stereotyping and educational choices

The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam wrote an interesting piece yesterday highlighting how even subtle questions or comments can greatly affect students' educational choices and even test performance.

The basic gist of the research conducted by psychologists at York University in Toronto and Tufts University in Boston was that even seemingly innocuous questions -- like whether students had a preference for co-ed dorms -- that just reminded women college students of their gender led to a significant difference in whether those students expressed a preference for the arts or math subjects. The women tended to respond in a gender-stereotypical way, with more saying that they preferred art. When a different set of women were asked about their preference over telephone service, which presumably has no gender connotations at all, more tended to express an interest in math.

The researchers also found that when women were subliminally exposed to words like "lipstick" or "skirt", they tended to indicate a preference for art. When women were subliminally exposed to "suit" or "cigar", they tended to indicate a preference for math. This research builds on other studies that have shown that when girls are explicitly reminded of their gender, they tend to do worse on math and science tests.

The article in the Washington Post goes on to point out that various other stereotypes are often at work in the classroom: when Asian girls are reminded that they are Asian, they tend to do better at math tests; when they are reminded that they are girls, they tend to do worse. Similarly, when white students are reminded that Asian students tend to score well on math tests, the white students tend to do worse on those tests. Other research has also pointed out how subtle and seemingly benign indicators can have a strong effect on students: when an American flag was placed in a classroom, white students tended to do better on exams, whereas the scores of racial minorities were unaffected.

Bottom line of the new research: reminders of gender roles or gender stereotypes, even in an innocuous way, affect the educational choices and test scores of women and men.

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