Women in Science – Why Girls Have to See One To Be One

In 2010 Doctoral student Jessica Good of Rutgers University recently led a small exploratory study of why boys do better than girls in science classes. The results of those studies were then published in the Journal of Social Psychology. The results that came from the study were fascinating. It appears that the images in science textbooks may play a huge part in why girls have a harder time in science. Most textbooks used in our nation’s schools show mostly images of male scientists.

The study involved 81 9th and 10th graders who were given a three-page chemistry exam. The text of all the tests was exactly the same. The only differences in the tests were the images. One group of tests had images of all male scientists, one group had all female scientists, and the third had images of both men and women.

The girls in the group with the women only images not only scored better than the girls who had the other tests, but scored better than the boys who had taken part in the study. The group who had the male only images found the usual gaps in test scores between girls and boys.

This phenomenon of a predominant appearance of male scientist images in textbooks and how they can adversely affect ethnic minorities as well as females was first described by researchers at Stanford University in California in the mid-1990s. It is known among researchers in social psychology and education as “stereotype threat.” Basically the test-taker feels threatened when faced with a reminder of a stereotype that reflects negatively on his or her abilities in the subject matter at hand.

The study concludes, “Research should investigate the influence of diverse role models presented in textbooks as a way of improving performance of multiple stereotyped groups, not just women.” They went on to say, “Although eliminating gender bias in textbooks will most likely not eradicate the gender gap in science interest and achievement, it will begin to chip away at an ever crumbling foundation.”

Though more research needs to be done this study does go a long way in showing why showing girls images of women working in fields that are stereotypically dominated by men is so vital. It is also why campaigns such as “I Look Like An Engineer” and ##DistractinglySexy have created such viral firestorms in recent months.

It is this theory that is also the very foundation in which SheHeroes has been built.

Want to show your child some awesome women of science? Check out our video of laser physicist and MacArthur Genius Grant award recipient Professor Margaret Murname. Or maybe listen to our SheHeroesChatCast episodes with Christina Li or Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt.

2 thoughts on “Women in Science – Why Girls Have to See One To Be One

  1. Wow, this is fascinating! We need to demand that advertising, media, and textbook editors consider how to better serve women in STEM. Thankfully, I had an awesome 8th grade science teacher, Ms. Lehmer, who inspired me to love science.

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