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Stereotype Threat and Women in STEM

Posted on: April 14th, 2015 by learningws No Comments

I am a tutor at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, and as a part of our Level II CRLA Training we are asked to give a summary and response to a peer-reviewed journal article.  My article is called “Learning in a Man’s World: Examining the Perceptions of Undergraduate Women in Male-Dominated Academic Areas.”

The purpose of the article is to look at first and last year undergraduate female students in order to identify their negative perceptions of being in a male-dominated academic area such as math, science, and engineering. Jennifer Steele, James B. Jacquelyn, and Rosalind Chait Barnett hypothesize that women in math, science, and engineering fields would be likely to perceive: (1) sexual discrimination, (2) future career sexual discrimination relating to their academic focus, (3) feelings of vulnerability towards gender stereotypes that men are more capable in these fields (stereotype threat), (4) feel least associated with their field of study, and (5) report that they may change academic major (66-67). The first and last year undergraduate students used in this study were from private schools located in the Northeastern United States. These students were sent a questionnaire with related questions to the five hypotheses stated in the purpose.

As the researchers expected, women in the math, science, and engineering fields felt discriminated against personally and as a whole (Steele et al. 49). As the researchers expected, women foresaw discrimination if they were to pursue a career path in one of the three disciplines of interest. Results concurred with the initial hypothesis that women would feel threatened by negative stereotypes related to math, science, and engineering. Some of the researcher’s hypotheses were disproven by the results of the study. Women did not feel less associated with their field of study than men. Results that women are more likely to report changing majors than men was indeed confirmed through the study (Steele et al. 49).

What surprised me most about the study is that all of the initial claims of the study were confirmed accept that “women would feel least associated with their field of study (in math, science, and engineering)”. I would have thought since all the other claims were substantiated that this one would have been too. I think further study on this specific topic would be interesting to understand why women feel discriminated against in these disciplines, but still feel connected to them.

It was not surprising to me that women perceived higher levels of academic discrimination, sexual discrimination related to their career field, stereotype threat, and reported thinking of changing their major. Historically, men have been seen as better in field’s that are related to science, math, and engineering (biological theory). Therefore, it is hard for women to overcome long-term stereotypes and limitations set by men.

I encounter people in the math center everyday that put limitations on what they can do because they believe some type of negative stereotype related to their sex, age, income bracket or nationality. It is important for me to be aware of these stereotypes and be able to talk people through their self-assigned limitations. It is also important to point out what the student is doing well and praise them for working hard. Therefore, tutoring is not just material-focused, it’s focused on building relationships. In truth, were only in charge of putting out the effort not the outcome.

–Daniel, MCTC Math and Writing Tutor


Works Cited

Steele, Jennifer, Jacquelyn B. James, and Rosalind Chait Barnett. “Learning In A Man’s World: Examining The Perceptions Of Undergraduate Women In Male-Dominated Academic Areas.” Psychology Of Women Quarterly 26.1 (2002): 46-50. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

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