Remarks made about the reasons behind gender differences, such as those made by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, could hurt women as much as the stereotypes themselves.

(Inset) Justin Ide/Harvard News Office; Digital Vision

The Power of a Stereotype

When former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers speculated last year that women might not be as scientifically talented as men, he sparked a furious debate about the gender gap in science and engineering. Now, two psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, say that Summers's remarks--and similar theories about innate sex differences--could themselves hurt women's performance in science and math.

Researchers know that the fear of confirming stereotypical impressions--such as African Americans being poor in academics or women not being good at math--can hurt the performance of the stereotyped individuals (ScienceNOW, 31 August). Psychologists Steve Heine and Ilan Dar-Nimrod wanted to see if the reasoning behind the stereotype was as important as the stereotype itself.

To do this, the researchers randomly assigned more than 120 women with an average age of 20 to four groups. Each took a three-part test, two math sections separated by a reading comprehension essay. The first essay argued that sex differences in math were due to genetic differences between men and women. The second cited a person's experiences as the main factor. A third essay talked about gender differences but did not discuss mathematical ability. The final essay stated that there were no differences in mathematical ability between men and women.

Women given the essay focusing on genetic factors performed the worst of the four groups. Those focusing on experience did significantly better, and their performance was as good as the group that was told that gender differences do not exist, the team reports in tomorrow's issue of Science.

Why did some women score higher? The researchers propose that when group differences are perceived to rest on specific experiences, "people may reason that their own experiences are different or that they can resist the effects of their experiences."

The work is a nice demonstration of "how altering an aspect of a stereotype can impact behavior," says Julio Garcia, a psychologist at Yale University. It also offers a practical lesson for teachers, says Sue Rosser, a zoologist at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, who has actively campaigned for gender equity in the sciences. "Faculty should be made aware of how subtle remarks and examples used in curricular content can influence [student] performance in math and science courses as well as their choice of major," she says.

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