Can Stereotypes Explain Gender Gaps in STEM Fields?

06.05.2015
HR & Safety

Yes, according to study

Researchers want to explain why there are fewer women in STEM fields. Meredith Meyer, assistant professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Ohio, tested the cultural stereotype that men are more ‘naturally brilliant’ than women. What they found is that in careers where ‘natural brilliance’ was required, women made up only a fraction of the workforce. Earlier this year, Meyer found the same bias in a study of the academic community (published in Science).

In the most recent study, Meyer and her team surveyed 609 people via an online crowd-sourcing platform. Participants were asked to rate their agreement with statements regarding specific disciplines, such as, “If you want to succeed in [field], hard work alone just won’t cut it; you need to have an innate gift or talent.”

The team determined that fewer women were represented in fields where the participants believed a natural talent was necessary to succeed.

“In the earlier study, we were focusing on tapping into the beliefs of people who are already working in higher academics, including STEM fields,” says Meyer. “It was important to expand our focus, though, because people make decisions about what careers and fields to pursue long before they come into direct contact with academics. It turns out that very similar beliefs are held about which fields require innate brilliance, whether you’re talking to a professor within the field or a member of the public. And so we see the same pattern again; fields believed to require innate brilliance, like math, engineering, or philosophy, also feature the fewest women.”

Meyer says that we can reduce gender gaps in STEM participation if practitioners in these fields would make an effort to emphasize that sustained, long-term effort is the key to success, rather than innate brilliance.

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