Gender stereotypes and the gender gap in higher education

There’s an interesting op-ed on the role of gender stereotypes in gender differences in college participation and performance in the New York Times today by Andrew Reiner who teaches a course on masculinity at Towson University, and I thought our readers might be interested. Here’s a snippet of it:

In many ways, the young men who take my seminar — typically, 20 percent of the class — mirror national trends. Based on their grades and writing assignments, it’s clear that they spend less time on homework than female students; and while every bit as intelligent, they earn lower grades with studied indifference. When I asked one of my male students why he didn’t openly fret about grades the way so many women do, he said: ‘Nothing’s worse for a guy than looking like a Try Hard.’

In a report based on the 2013 book “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools,” the sociologists Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann observe: “Boys’ underperformance in school has more to do with society’s norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones or brain structure. In fact, boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys. But these cultural activities are often denigrated as un-masculine by preadolescent and adolescent boys.

. . . By the time many young men do reach college, a deep-seeded gender stereotype has taken root that feeds into the stories they have heard about themselves as learners. Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl, all in the name of constantly having to prove an identity to yourself and others.

CFA: Bias in Context: Psychological and Structural Explanations (Sheffield)

Bias in Context: Psychological and Structural Explanations
The University of Sheffield, September 5th & 6th.
Deadline: 1st May 2016

What is the relationship between psychological and structural explanations of persistent social injustice? Much empirical and philosophical work focuses on individualistic psychological explanations for ongoing injustice. Such explanations appeal to phenomena such as prejudice, implicit bias, stereotyping, and stereotype threat, in order to understand persisting inequities in a broad range of contexts, including educational, corporate, and informal social contexts.

A key challenge to this body of work maintains that the focus on individual psychology is at best obfuscatory of, and at worst totally irrelevant to, more fundamental causes of injustice, which are institutional and structural. Yet structural explanations face difficulties accommodating the extent to which individual agency is implicated in those problematic structures or institutions. Nor are they well placed to articulate how individual agency might be directed towards changing these structures.

The aim of this interdisciplinary conference is to examine the relationship between psychological explanations and structural explanations of injustice. This work will generate more fully worked-out understandings of the interaction between these two kinds of explanation. These understandings can inform both future empirical study, institutional policy, and individual and collective action.

This conference is the second of four anticipated events on this theme (Cal Poly Pomona, May 2016; The University of Sheffield, September 2016; Sheffield, January 2017; The University of Utah, October 2017) in order to develop sustained attention to these questions.

Confirmed speakers, September 2016:
Dr Alex Madva (Cal Poly Pomona)
Professor Jennifer Saul (University of Sheffield)
Dr Joseph Sweetman (University of Exeter)
Professor Nicole Tausch (University of St Andrews)
Dr Robin Zheng (University of Cambridge)

We invite submissions of abstracts (1500 words) on the themes of the workshop. We encourage submissions from postgraduate or early career researchers. We in particular welcome submissions from individuals who identify as members of under-represented groups. Funds are available to support the travel and accommodation costs of speakers. Papers should be prepared for anonymous review, and submitted via by the 1st of May 2016. Submissions should be made to Andreas Bunge, postgraduate organisational assistant:

The venue of the workshop is accessible. More details about the conference room and venue can be found here:
Specific accommodation needs that are not already met by the venue can be detailed on our online registration form (details of which to follow). We hope to be able to assist with childcare costs, if needed. Please contact the organisers to make enquiries. Our aim is to plan the conference in a way that permits all participants to enjoy the full benefits of participation. Further inquiries about accessibility can be made to conference organizers at the addresses listed below or, if preferred, directly to the venue (contact details are at the link above).

This event is sponsored by The Society for Applied Philosophy, The Mind Association, and The Analysis Trust, as well as the University of Sheffield.

The full program and registration details will be available by 31 May.
For further details or enquiries please contact the organisers:
Dr Erin Beeghly,
Dr Jules Holroyd,

Lovely overview of stereotype threat

from an MIT student.  And it contained a discussion of a remarkable study I hadn’t come across before, on how to eliminate the gap between men and women on mental rotation.  It turns out that just spending a little time imagining oneself as a stereotypical male raises women’s scores so dramatically the gap is reduced to statistical insignificance.

In a now-famous study, psychologists at the University of Berlin falsely told participants that they had been selected to participate in a series of tests “to measure the ability to put oneself in someone else’s position” – a fabrication devised to avoid confounding factors in their real study on gender identity priming. They prepared a text describing a day in the life of a “stereotypical woman” who takes care of her family, works part time, and is insightful, helpful, and agreeable. They also prepared an equivalently-structured text outlining the activities of a stereotypical manly man who is tough, risk-taking, and does weight training after work. Subjects were randomly given one of the two texts, and then asked: “If you were the person described in the text, which adjectives would you use to describe yourself?”

Soon after participants described themselves with either the male- or female-associated traits, they were asked to take a mental rotation test presented as independent of the first part of the study, supposedly to measure their personal spatial aptitude. On this mental rotation test, women who were “primed” with the female identity scored an average of 3.86 on the exercise, compared to the female-primed males’ average of 5.14. Okay, expected. But then when primed with the male text, women scored an average of 5.49, while men scored 5.53… wait a second, what?

As it turns out, there is zero statistically significant gender difference in mental rotation ability after test-takers are asked to imagine themselves as stereotypical men for a few minutes. None. An entire standard deviation of female underperformance is negated on this condition, just as a man’s performance is slightly hindered if he instead imagines himself as a woman. (well then.) Although this study is of course not a logically definitive answer to all things “nature versus nurture,” it does add a tremendous structural asset to the growing mountain of evidence that “natural” ability differences are confounded by identity and subconscious self-stereotyping. Demographic expectations may be subtle or overt, but they are omnipresent, and they are likely much more powerful than most of us have ever considered.

Thanks to S, and S, for calling this article to my attention!

Reader Query: “The Science of Sex Appeal”

A reader writes:

Has anyone seen the documentary “The Science of Sex Appeal,” and if so, could you please recommend academic sources that counter the claims made by this video?” While Cordelia Fine’s book is great for arguing against this evolutionary psychology bullshit more generally (sorry; maybe it isn’t all bullshit, but THIS stuff is), I’d really like to be able to point to specific claims made in the video and offer specific, scientifically supported claims to the contrary. I haven’t found anything through database searches.

UPDATE: This post has been a nightmare to moderate.  Do to many requests, I tried to confine comments to ones that really address the reader’s query, rather than dealing in big generalisations about whether feminists hate evolutionary psychology, etc. I’m now closing comments.


FURTHER UPDATE: This is being briefly re-opened.

Barbie F*cks It Up and Feminist Hackers Save the Day

…So, I wasn’t going to click the link. Sexist books and toys are ubiquitous, and one grows weary of reading about them. But it turns out that even though the Barbie I can be… A Computer Engineer book is even more awful than you might expect (Barbie herself doesn’t write the code: she needs Steven and Brian for that.), Pamela Ribon’s righteous rant in response to Barbie’s ersatz engineering is worth the price of admission:

THE FUCKING END, PEOPLE. Despite having ruined her own laptop, her sister’s laptop, and the library’s computers, not to mention Steven and Brian’s afternoon, she takes full credit for her game design— only to get extra credit and decide she’s an awesome computer engineer! “I did it all by myself!”

Flip the book and you can read “Barbie: I can be an Actress,” where Barbie saves the day by filling in for the princess in Skipper’s school production of “Princess and the Pea.” […]

When you hold the book in your hands to read a story, the opposite book is upside down, facing out. So the final insult to this entire literary disaster is that when you read “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer,” it appears that you are so fucking dumb, you’re reading “Barbie: I Can Be an Actress” upside down.

Even better, if it weren’t for Barbie I can be… A Computer Engineer, we would never have gotten to enjoy the Feminist Hacker Barbie site, at which readers are invited to improve the original book. Here’s one user’s suggested improvement:

Barbie, wearing glasses and flowing blonde hair, sits at a computer; the screen is showing multiple lines of computer code. Two young men stand beside her smiling.

Update: Great news! A female PhD student in computing has re-written the book to make it what it ought to have been in the first place. Here’s her version. Yay, intertubz!

Why are there so few women in philosophy?

    The data on doctorates is telling. According to recent research the number of women receiving doctorates in philosophy is very near the bottom of the academic barrel.

    This blog has been looking at many facets of this problem. See our discussions of research here and here, for example. Or search our site for posts on implicit bias and stereotype threat.

    New research is opening up our understanding of another factor, which resides in the beliefs about one’s ability to succeed in a career:

    The decision to pursue a career rests in part on how we judge the following inequality:



    If we believe this inequality to be true, we might proceed; if we decide it’s false, we might look elsewhere. Importantly, however, neither side of this inequality is easy to evaluate. Abilities are nebulous, context-sensitive things that are notoriously problematic to pin down. As a result, we often look to others for clues, leaving the door open for substantial social and cultural influences on career choices. A symposium at the 2014 SPSP conference in Austin highlighted a number of recent findings that link sociocultural influences on people’s assessment of the inequality above to the presence of gender gaps.

    How do we get from sociocultural influences on this formula all the way to gender gaps? First, and most obviously, contemporary culture is rife with stereotypes about differences in men’s and women’s cognitive profiles; these stereotypes shape people’s beliefs about the quantity on the left-hand side (that is, the abilities they are likely to possess). Second, and less often discussed, practitioners of different careers may send different messages about the abilities that are required to reach the highest levels of achievement in their particular field; these messages shape people’s beliefs about the quantity on the right-hand side (that is, the abilities required for success). Putting these two elements together, we might make the following claim: One circumstance that gives rise to a gender gap in a career or discipline is when a gender group is stereotyped to lack an ability that the people in that discipline believe is essential for success.

    The post from which the quote above comes comes is full of interesting ideas and results. It’s a must read for anyone interested in the questions concerning access and opportunity.

    Here are some snippets:

    In some disciplines success may be seen as depending on sustained effort and dedication, whereas in others it may be seen as requiring a “gift” or brilliance that cannot be taught. Because women are stereotyped as being less likely than men to possess innate intellectual talent, they may find the academic fields that emphasize brilliance as the key to success to be unwelcoming. [note that the claim here is that the fields themselves may seem less welcoming. This seems different from the conclusions of Carol Dweck that we discuss in our Psychology of Philosophy section.]

    – Regardless of the purported cognitive differences men and women, or of the abilities purportedly required to become a physicist vs. a psychologist vs. an anthropologist, the mere presence of (1) different societal beliefs about the intellectual abilities of men and women, and (2) different societal beliefs about the intellectual abilities required for success in different fields will be sufficient to give rise to (or at least exacerbate) gender gaps.

    Stereotypes may have many different sources. To the extent that they contain messages about ability, this research says they may quite significantly affect career choices. Though the research is specifically about gender, we should keep it in mind as we think about issues such as the incredibly low representation of blacks in higher education in The Uk. Or the abled body whiteness of US philosophy.

    (Thanks to BL.)

Country objects to sexualised images of itself, wins

I guess if you want to object to sexualised images, you’re better off as a country than as a woman:

Sports giant Adidas is suspending the sale of World Cup T-shirts after Brazil’s authorities complained they sexualised the country’s image.

One read “Looking to score?” next to a scantily-dressed woman; another printed a heart [which was] shaped like a bikini-clad bottom with the phrase “I love Brazil”.

Brazil says it has been trying to distance itself from the sexual stereotypes that marked the country for decades.

Comics, Film, and Race

There’s a been a bit of a dust-up on the interwebz over the announcement that Michael B. Jordan will be playing Johnny Storm (aka Human Torch) in the Fantastic Four reboot film. There’s a really nice article at IGN responding to the controversy. Here’s just a snippet summary:

The complaints about the Jordan casting seem to boil down to these core arguments:

  1. Johnny Storm has always been portrayed as a white character.
  2. Hollywood shouldn’t try to change a character’s race just for the sake of political correctness or money.
  3. Audiences will be confused if the race of this iconic superhero character is suddenly changed.
  4. Having a black Johnny and a white Sue means the characters aren’t brother and sister anymore.

To which I offer these rebuttals:

  1. Yes, and so were Kingpin, Heimdall, Perry White, and Nick Fury at one point.
  2. Unless you’ve read the script and sat in on the production meetings, it’s a little presumptuous to claim you understand the motivations behind this decision.
  3. Just like that time everyone’s brain melted when WB replaced Billy Dee Williams’ Harvey Dent with Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face?
  4. A mixed-race family? That’s unpossible!

Fight Sexist Stereotypes With Shampoo

This ad actually does a pretty nice job of summing up in a minute the power and persuasion of some of the current sexist stereotypes floating around our culture.

However, in an expected non-twist (it being a commercial), the video ends with the advice that, in order to avoid these double standards, one should just buy the right shampoo.

I find it extra amusing (and bemusing) that the ad can’t even demonstrate the efficacy of its own advice.  The woman at the very end supposedly has beaten the “show off” stereotype with her shiny hair, but…there’s nothing in the ad showing that to be the case. The word “show off” has miraculously melted from the sidewalk beneath her feet, but the suggestion is still in our heads.  I found myself still easily fitting the woman under the heading of “show off.” The ad created no cognitive dissonance that might allow one to undermine the force of these stereotypes.

So really, this commercial is a great showcase for why individual willpower/gusto/innovation sometimes just can’t beat a cultural stereotype.  It doesn’t matter how great your hair looks. In fact, the better it looks, the more of a show-off you may seem.

I find it fascinating when people can so brilliantly articulate one piece of a puzzle and then immediately fail so hard at framing the adjacent pieces.
(See also: anyone who has moved you to tears with their articulation of one form of oppression to only turn around and spout tone-deaf nonsense about the others.)