Across the calculus sections, women outperformed men on grades.

Several recent studies have suggested that the gender gap in STEM fields is caused not by bias, but simply by different choices made by men and women. What the new research shows, Dasgupta said, is choice isn’t as simple as people think. “People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation,” Dasgupta said. “But these data suggest that the meaning of choices, of what it means to choose math or science, is more complicated. Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.”

Inoculation Against Stereotype by Scott Jaschik (Inside Higher Ed)

There is a common belief among some computer geek communities that women are underrepresented in STEM because we just don’t like it, and so we should celebrate differences instead of making women “miserable” by “forcing” us into careers we “don’t like”. This study would debunk that myth, if only most men in tech who discuss the topic of women in tech actually did some research on it, instead of leaving comments that make male geeks feel good about themselves and rationalize the gender imbalance in “their” field.

For other male geeks who insist that there are hard-wired brain differences in men and women, and argue that women’s brains are hard-wired against understanding math and science as well as men (instead of hard-wired against enjoying math and science), this part of the article should be emphasized:

Skeptics might wonder if some of the [gender] differences [in engagement] among students relate to how well the students know the material. The researchers checked for that and found that, across sections, women outperformed men on grades. So the data point to women losing confidence with male instructors — even if female students know the material as well as or better than their male counterparts.

Link: Inoculation Against Stereotype (Inside Higher Ed)

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8 Responses to “Across the calculus sections, women outperformed men on grades.”

  1. sheenyglass Says:

    I have seen a similar dynamic with regard to speaking in class non-STEM fields. (Coming from a more artsy-fartsy background, I’m fine with anecdotal evidence. Its so much more evocative!) I specifically remember a discussion on the last day of my Con Law class about men speaking disproportionately more than women. The rough consensus of the women seemed to be that they refrained from speaking because they were uncertain of themselves compared to the cocky men and, consequently, didn’t want to enter the fray. Because the law is viewed as a profession that requires linguistic agility and an argumentative mindset, there is a common tendency to associate speaking in class confidently with competence. However, although men tended to dominate discussion, women ended up filling the majority of the law review positions (positions are offered to top 10% of the class). In short, men (myself included – I’m fairly chatty but ended up in the middle of the class) were overconfident, while women ended up being more competent. (Which tracks with your previous post about men overestimating their intelligence.)

    To me one takeaway is that it isn’t clear that the problem is simply a lack of confidence on the part of women. Since men are overconfident, we don’t really provide a useful reference point for an appropriate level of confidence. So to if lower confidence corresponds to higher grades, maybe it isn’t the primary problem. It seem to me that 1) tolerating unjustified confidence and 2) mistaking confidence for competence are just as dangerous, if not more so. Is the feeling of not belonging in STEM fields attributable lower confidence or to a belief that the level of confidence shown by men is a prerequisite to entry into those fields? If its the latter, then the absolute level of confidence is less important than the perception that one must be confident. In which case a more productive route might be to work on breaking the association of confidence with competence.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    Is the feeling of not belonging in STEM fields attributable lower confidence or to a belief that the level of confidence shown by men is a prerequisite to entry into those fields?

    I think that the belief that the level of confidence shown by men is a prerequisite to entry into those fields is pervasive, at least for computer science and computer geek culture. Male geeks tend to brag about their abilities (and how long they have been hacking), like it’s a cultural norm.

    I feel like assuming that confidence means competence is true even for university in general. I remember in my first year of university, I made a self-deprecating comment like, “I’m not good at X,” to a professor (for a course that wasn’t really STEM), and then he accepted that what I said was true and made suggestions about what I can do to get around my weakness, or something like that.

    In general, I think professors and such are very busy, so they don’t have time to worry about each student’s personality and their confidence issues. Job interviews are probably the same. How would we break the association between confidence and competence?

  3. sheenyglass Says:

    How would we break the association between confidence and competence?

    To my mind, confidence functions like physical attractiveness or height – it inspires respect on a subconscious level without correlating to competence. (unless of course the job itself requires high levels of confidence right off the bat [these jobs are rare]). The difference between attractiveness and confidence in this context is that consciously basing a hiring decision or other evaluation on attractiveness is seen as irrational, while doing so because of confidence is perfectly acceptable.

    I see a lot of solutions that recommend ways of helping women act confident like men. Which can be good, but sometimes can also amount to telling women to act like dicks. It also implicitly sanctions the value of using confidence as a competence evaluating heuristic, which is not good. So I would like to see a stronger push to devalue confidence as a legitimate basis of evaluation and/or hiring. It would never go away completely, but hopefully awareness of the cognitive error can help us to mitigate its harm.

    Assuming at least some people with the capacity to make these decisions are convinced of the value of this approach, we should minimize the effect of personality on evaluation processes. I think a good place to start is to stop relying on interviews for anything other than determining if someone has the social skills necessary for a position. Every other area of competence is measured more accurately by something that simulates actual performance and measures that performance objectively, like grades or tests. Avenues for soft influence on grades should be minimized – professors should be hesitant to base grades upon class participation simply to encourage class participation for its own sake. Blind grading should be standard, so a professor’s personal opinion of the student is irrelevant to the raw score.

    Plan B:
    Step 1: comment at blogs
    Step 2: ??????
    Step 3: break the association between confidence and competence

  4. Restructure! Says:

    I strongly agree that evaluations based on interviews and class participation are a huge problem, and that we should have grading that masks the identity of the student. I honestly don’t know why universities still require students put their name on whatever they submit. The research is there already. Maybe someone needs to advocate to change the system. Hmm . . .

    I think your comment does help, actually. I find it comforting that someone else shares our “radical” perspective on evaluation.

  5. sheenyglass Says:

    Glad to help! Funny how “radical” isn’t that far from “common sense,” provided you believe in human fallibility…

    Incidentally, blind grading is actually pretty standard in US law schools as far as I know. Although I have many problems with legal pedagogy in general, this is one thing the schools definitely do right. Because grades in law school are significantly more important than any other factor in getting a prestigious job and the student body as a whole tends to be ambitious, neurotic and willing to aggressively challenge dis-advantageous test results, there is a strong incentive for the fairness of the examination system to be made irreproachable. I think without that incentive, its pretty easy for the institution to have a hands-off policy with regard to individual classes. Which leaves it in the hands of professors to design and implement a system premised upon their inability to accurately and fairly evaluate competence in their chosen field. So I do think advocacy on the part of the student body, alumni and other stakeholders would be required to create that incentive.

  6. Across the calculus sections, women outperformed men on grades. | Geek Feminism Blog Says:

    […] post was originally published at Restructure! Several recent studies have suggested that the gender gap in STEM fields is caused not by bias, but […]

  7. K(yle) Says:

    grading that masks the identity of the student. I honestly don’t know why universities still require students put their name on whatever they submit. The research is there already. Maybe someone needs to advocate to change the system.

    Affirmative Action is why. Not all ‘races’ compete at the same level in terms of raw ability to do their homework or score well on tests. If all grading is blind, then it is also colorblind, which is basically illegal. You’d have a Disparate Impact lawsuit on your hands very soon.

    How would we break the association between confidence and competence?

    It’s already broken. How would you propose to fix it? The person that is both confident in their abilities and accurately appraises them is extraordinarily rare.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_superiority

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

  8. Anonymous Says:

    When a small sample size study conflicts with personal experience and large trends observed over time, should the small study’s conclusion take presidence just because it is more palatable?


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