Women, grade sensitivity, and major selection

Women May Be Underrepresented in STEM Because They’re Too Concerned With Grades: “Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin wanted to know why only 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees in economics in the United States are awarded to women. So she started studying the academic records of students at one anonymous research institute and found that women who receive A’s in an introductory economics course were actually more likely than men with A’s to go on to choose economics as their major. But women who received poorer grades were much less likely to pursue the major than men were. Starting at the A-minus level, women jump ship to other majors, but men stick around. Men who receive B’s are just as likely as male A students to elect an econ major, but female A students are twice as likely as B students to major in econ. By the time you reach the C students, men are about four times as likely as women to major in the discipline.”

Read the rest here.

In a previous blog post, Leaving the Sciences (and maybe Philosophy too), on a New York Times piece, Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) I wondered if that same phenomena was affecting philosophy enrollments. Both pieces cite the same piece of research by Ben Ost. Ost’s study, “The Role of Peers and Grades in Determining Major Persistence in the Sciences” is here. Ost’s abstract says, “In both the physical and life sciences, I find evidence that students are “pulled away” by their high grades in non-science courses and “pushed out” by their low grades in their major field. In the physical sciences, females are found to be more responsive to grades than males, consistent with psychological theories of stereotype vulnerability.”

I wrote in the old post, “I haven’t read through all of Ost’s paper yet but I did find myself wondering about Philosophy. Philosophers often boast about being tough graders and I think that we like that our grades are lower than other Humanities subjects. Does that grading culture cost us our female students? If so, what ought we to do about it?”

Anyone else familiar with this research? Anyone have views on whether it’s a factor in philosophy and our gender enrollment issues at the undergrad level?

25 thoughts on “Women, grade sensitivity, and major selection

  1. This explanation for why women don’t continue in philosophy makes sense to me. Philosophy professor do pride themselves on grading hard, and who do they think deserve the harshest critiques? When my students present to the campus or my Department I actively worry that the women are judged more harshly. Sometimes I can almost prove that they have been.

    In a recent case a female student was mocked by professors for her topic in a public presentation. Yet we had drawn topics for students by lot, so she was arguing (very well) on the topic assigned. The professor mocking her (to the other faculty) looked so deflated to find out this was the case. I’m not sure he even accepted that information as exonerating, actually. I ruined all the fun.

    My guess is that a lot of men in our field are so proud of being smart, and associate men with being smart, and that the threats to their self-identity are people they don’t already consider smart.

  2. I’m just curious if anyone knows the demographics for basic intro philosophy courses. We talk a lot about wooing majors, especially women. But it’s hard to know how well the profession is doing in enrolling women without knowing the demographics for those introductory courses.

  3. I know them for my university but not for the discipline as a whole and it’s different country to country. We’re at about 50-50 in 1st (in a faculty that’s 70-30, female to male) and then we’re down to about 30% women by 4th year.

  4. Hi, Sam! Are those numbers for majors specifically, or demographics for all students who take their first course in philosophy?

    [Obviously, even if its just majors, the drop off is still problematic for the profession.]

  5. All students who take philosophy courses. Majors are about 30% female, I think too and they don’t declare a major until the end of 2nd year.

  6. At my university too, we’re fairly close to even in the intro courses and have a drastic falloff into intermediate level courses.

    I think most of the people I’ve talked to who’ve studied this have found this to be the case.

  7. I wonder if it’s not just stereotype vulnerability at work here, but – in some cases at least – a coping strategy based on an awareness that women have to work twice as hard to do half as well, so to speak. Women who know that they aren’t going to be taken as seriously in the job market, who know that they have to really shine to get the same attention that would be given to a slightly-above-average male student, might choose – even if subconsciously – a “slam-dunk” major. In other words, I wonder if the greater tendency to shy away from majors where they (initially) make less-than-top-shelf grades might not be a rational (if depressing!) response to the existence of institutional sexism.

  8. This is something I’ve wondered about too. I’m sort of hoping it turns out not to be the case that this is a significant part of the explanation; I’d be sad if the solution to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy — something I hate — turned out to be more grade inflation — something else I hate. I don’t think of myself as a harsh grader; I almost never fail students who make any significant effort in the course, and my median grades are usually high Bs. But I think it’s important to communicate to students, especially at an early level, where there is room for improvement, and the difference between a B and an A is the best way I know to do that. I’m really not sure what I’d do if I became convinced that throwing more As around really was the best way to improve gender balance. Maybe I’d bite the bullet and do it, but I don’t know.

  9. Thanks, Jamie! That paper is a nice resource! Do you know if there’s something similar for male students? That is, what the drop off is between the categories for male students?

    Also, that footnote #4 is interesting. Even though 41% sounds like a pretty good percentage, it’s still a ways off from the 57% enrollment rate for women.

  10. Does anyone have information (or know where to find it) on how Intro to Philosophy grades stack up generally as compared to other intro courses (psychology, economics, history, etc.)?

  11. JD, yes, 41% is lower than it sounds, so to speak.

    Not sure what you mean about percentages of men. That doesn’t drop off at all, of course. (The percentages of men must be awfully close to (100% – percentages of women), wouldn’t you think?)

    If you mean absolute numbers, I think you can recover this information from what’s given in the article. The sample includes 11,246 students from philosophy introductory courses and 3,443 majors.

  12. Hi, Jamie. I’m not sure what we’re talking about, I guess. And now I’m realizing that I’m not really sure know how statistics and correlations work.

    Something like 60% of students that take intro courses are male. But there is an even higher percentage of male philosophy majors; something like 65%.

    So this would seem to mean that 100% of the male students in intro classes go on to major in philosophy, plus an additional 5% gain from somewhere else. But this can’t be right, right? Surely it’s just a small number of these students that go on to actually major in philosophy. I’m having a hard time figuring out how to interpret this relation.

    I’m just trying to figure out how the data from intro courses relates to the data from declared majors. I’m not sure what it means to say the percentage of female students drops. Though, there is a dramatic difference in the percent difference between male students and female students in intro courses as opposed to declared majors. Is that the comparison that we should be looking at?

    Anyway…. Apologies if this is too off topic.

  13. “Something like 60% of students that take intro courses are male. But there is an even higher percentage of male philosophy majors; something like 65%.

    So this would seem to mean that 100% of the male students in intro classes go on to major in philosophy, plus an additional 5% gain from somewhere else. But this can’t be right, right?”

    Right. Not all men who take intro will go on to major, but an even smaller percent of the women who take intro will go on to major.

    This will be easiest to understand in concrete numbers. Assume that 200 students take intro. 60% of them are men, so that’s 120 men and 80 women. Now assume that 100 students major in philosophy. 65% of them are men: 65 men, 35 women. This is just using the percentages you provided (and arbitrarily choosing denominators that, because they are multiples of 100, make working with percentages very easy).

    What does that mean about the rate at which men and women, after taking intro, become majors? For students in general, the rate is 50%: 200 take intro, 100 major. For men, it’s 65/120 = around 54% who take intro major. For women, 35/80 = around 44% who take intro major.

    The error in your original conclusion was that the 65% is a percent of all the students who major. Your reasoning imagined that it was 65% who ever took intro, instead of 65% of the smaller group who major.

  14. I see, right.
    The Hypatia article only uses proportions. Those are the numbers in the charts, and the ones used in the correlations and tests of significance. (The sample is huge, so the results are highly significant.) It just means that 41% of the intro classes were women, and only 35% of majors were women.

    I just looked more carefully, and the authors don’t report the raw data. But you can get a rough idea (making some assumptions that may not hold water, like that the percentages and attrition doesn’t correlate with the size of the intro classes) by looking at the total numbers and multiplying by the percentages.

    As I mentioned, there were 11,246 students in the intro courses. So probably there were around 6600 men in those courses. There were 3443 philosophy majors, so probably about 2200 men.

    Is that what you were interested in finding out?

    I bet the authors would tell you if you asked.

  15. I’d take issue with Goldin’s claim that this behaviour shows that female students are “too focused on grades” (which could naturally be interpreted as a criticism). This behaviour is already nicely explained by the fact that female students hold themselves to higher standards than male students do in “masculine subjects”. Shelley Correll’s (2004) investigations show that when students are told that men have an advantage in a subject, women believe they need a score of 89 to be successful, and men believe they only need a score of 79. So we needn’t postulate that women care more than men about getting good grades in “masculine subjects” like economics; we need only point to the fact that women have different beliefs from men about what good grades amount to.

    Correll, S. J. (2004). Constraints into preferences: Gender, status, and emerging career aspirations.
    American Sociological Review, 69(1), 93–113.

  16. Apologies, now that I’ve had a closer look, I haven’t found any evidence that *Goldin* actually said women are more concerned with grades. That interpretation seems to be something added by the Slate article linked to in the original post. Does anyone know if Goldin has published a paper on this? The only thing I can find is this editorial: http://www.ohio.com/editorial/claudia-goldin-will-more-of-our-daughters-grow-up-to-be-economists-1.437694

  17. A random research suggestion: in the UK, unlike the US, students commit to a major (in effect) at the point at which they apply to University, and mostly stick to that choice. They don’t start off taking a bunch of courses and specialise later. So comparing US and UK numbers at various points might say something interesting about which choke points matter. (I don’t have a more detailed proposal than that, it’s just food for thought.)

  18. Have compared them. UK drop-off is at first easy exit point– decision to continue to MA. US drop-off is also at first easy exit point– decision to major.

  19. For what its worth, an undergraduate study here at Vassar amongst our majors found, among other more complex results, that generally women explained their decision to major by referencing specific interactions with faculty where they received specific feedback that they were “good” at it, whereas male majors generally cited their interest in philosophy only. I’m not sure how much this generalizes.

    On a completely different note, it would be very interesting to put the results here together with Leslie, Cimpian, and Meyer’s forthcoming work on gender gaps in STEM and philosophy, where their explanation has to do with whether the values being communicated in introductory courses in a field appear to emphasize natural talent, intelligence, or “genius” on the one hand, or hard work on the other. Its not obvious to me how to put their results together with Goldin’s, but some suggestive ideas come to mind.

  20. I don’t think it was necessary either to call this phenomenon grade “sensitivity” or to conclude that women are “too concerned with grades”. How concerned is “too” concerned? What does “sensitivity” mean? I don’t think we can infer anything of the sort from the facts provided. I don’t think they tell us anything meaningful about what causes women to turn away from the philosophy major.

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