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When It Comes to Female Scientists, Seeing Is Believing

One new study finds a strong link between how many female science majors a country has, and the stereotypes its citizens hold about gender and science.
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(Photo: Oleg./Flickr)

(Photo: Oleg./Flickr)

People all over the world more strongly associate men with science than women, according to a study of about 350,000 people in 66 countries. But one thing helps: The more women taking college-level or higher classes in a country, the weaker those stereotypic associations are among the country's citizens.

The results suggest that people need to see repeated examples of women in science to whittle away at their unconscious stereotypes, the study's authors write in their paper, which will appear in the Journal of Educational Psychology this fall. Other women's rights gains aren't enough; it has to be about science in particular.

The study found that in countries where more women are enrolled in science classes and work as researchers, citizens are less likely to consciously associate science with men. Not surprisingly, more women in the science field was also associated with citizens having less strong unconscious beliefs about science being a man's game. Meanwhile, a country’s level of progressiveness—measured by things like gender pay gap and paid maternity leave—doesn’t seem to have anything to do with citizens' levels of bias about who belongs in science.

In countries where more women are enrolled in science classes and work as researchers, citizens are less likely to consciously associate science with men.

The upshot is some funny examples, such as the Netherlands, which ranks 14th in the world in terms of overall gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum, but second worst for implicit stereotypes about gender and science. The United States is roughly in the middle of the pack for implicit stereotypes, while it comes in at 20th out of 142 for overall gender equality. Male scientists outnumber female scientists about three to one in the U.S.; in the Netherlands, it's almost four to one.

The study is published at an interesting time, soon after an interview on NPR drew attention for revealing one leading scientist's implicit bias. "Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys,'" California Institute of Technology astronomer Shrinivas Kulkarni told NPR. In response, scientists have tweeted tens of thousands of photos depicting themselves and their female colleagues posing with scientific equipment. This Journal of Educational Psychology study suggests scrolling through such pictures may actually help. "Multiple observations of counterstereotypic women across diverse contexts, such as directly in science courses and indirectly in televisions shows, are critical to changing stereotypes," write the authors, a team of psychologists from Northwestern University and the University of California-Berkeley. Other research has shown that seeing only a few examples of women in science may even backfire, because people may assume those women tried exceptionally hard to get where they are. Seeing lots of examples of diversity is best—proof that women in science are ordinary, just like men are.