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This page was published on 07/07/2009
Published: 07/07/2009


Published: 7 July 2009  
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How implicit stereotypes affect gender equity in science

New research shows that implicit stereotypes could influence gender equity in science and mathematics engagement and performance. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the results showed that more than two thirds of the study's participants connect science with men, not women.

Researchers say culture plays a key role in shaping the beliefs and behaviour of its members © Shutterstock
Researchers say culture plays a key role in shaping the beliefs and behaviour of its members
© Shutterstock

The researchers said 70% of the participants in the over 500 000-strong sample, which included Czechs, Hungarians and Poles, associate science with men more than with women. Also, boys achieved at a higher level in eighth-grade science and maths in countries whose citizens had strong implicit stereotypes.

'We correlated our data with a measure of actual science achievement among eighth-graders in those 34 countries and found that in the countries with the largest sex gap — where the boys were performing much better than girls in maths and science — there also was the strongest implicit stereotyping of science as a male endeavour,' explained project leader Professor Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in the US.

The study's results suggest that implicit stereotypes may also have a hand in ensuring that women and girls steer clear of science as opposed to their male peers.

'We found a general tendency, across every country that we investigated: […] people on average have an easier time associating science concepts with male, rather than with female,' Professor Nosek added.

The research study was part of Project Implicit, a research and education website where visitors could complete the Implicit Association Test to measure their own implicit associations.

According to the researchers, the science and maths achievement scores in the 34 nations participating in the study emerged from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and were compared with the implicit stereotype data collected through Project Implicit, headed by the study's authors.

According to the researchers, they found no gender gap in the tendency to implicitly stereotype science as male. Male and female subjects 'showed equally strong associations of science with males'.

In this study, the participants were asked to quickly categorise words representing male including 'he' and 'son' or female including 'she' and 'mother', as well as those representing science like 'chemistry' and 'physics' or liberal arts such as 'history' and 'literature'. The majority of subjects categorised male words with science items more quickly than the female words with the same science items.

'Participants are often surprised to learn that they may have unconscious biases involving gender or race or religion that are quite different from their stated beliefs,' explained Professor Fred Smyth of the University of Virginia.

The researchers noted how the divergence between implicit and explicit beliefs and the relation of both to behaviour show that automatic, implicit reactions as well as deliberate, explicate beliefs play a significant role in behaviour.

'Culture is a powerful force for shaping the beliefs and behaviour of its members,' Professor Nosek said. 'Even if one's explicit beliefs change, the cultural residue may persist in memory and continue to influence behaviour,' he added.

'If countries want to increase their competitiveness in science and engineering, they might want to look at their social environments, the social factors like implicit stereotypes that exist at a cultural level, and how this might inhibit women — who comprise more than half their intellectual pool — from contributing to scientific and engineering advancement.'

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See also

Project Implicit
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study
'Does the brain have a sex?'

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