There's an interesting article up at the Association for Psychological Science website:
Murphy contends that situational cues (i.e. being outnumbered) may contribute to a decrease in women's performance expectations, as well as their actual performance. ... The women who watched the gender unbalanced video – where women were outnumbered by men in a 3 to 1 ratio – experienced faster heart rates, higher skin conductance (sweating), and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference.
"It would not be surprising if the general cognitive functioning of women in the threatening setting was inhibited because of this allocation of attention toward MSE-related cues," write the authors. Thus, it is likely that this kind of attention allocation would interfere with performance and might help explain the performance gap between men and women in (math, science, and engineering) fields. (read the rest)
Apparently, fear – even the subconscious kind – really is the mind-killer.
I find the article interesting for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that it mirrors how I've felt in my current job. Being the lone woman in a technical center full of 25 guys, yeah, I've never felt very comfortable there. And I know for damn sure my performance isn't what it should be, much to my chagrin, but there are so many factors playing into that (low pay, for instance) I never considered that gender imbalance could be playing a strong role. After all, I've felt like an outsider in a whole lot of jobs where I was the lone geek, or the lone whatever ... but on the other hand I feel I did a whole lot better at those other jobs.
But the article does a bit to explain why I feel inexplicable dread going to work, and why I picked the one cube where the desk faces the entrance. (I mean, seriously, my coworkers are not scary people.) It says my brain's being constantly pinged in the background by an ancient warning that evolved when being the only woman in a large group of unrelated men meant nothing good would happen. Have I failed to excel partly because dumb instinct's been telling me to keep my head down, avoid interacting and stay invisible? It could all be a bunch of psychological hooey, but it does seem to fit. What I choose to do with this insight, well, that's the rub, isn't it?
I'd be interested to see the results of a follow-up study that looked at the performance of people who were outnumbered in terms of both gender and ethnicity.
golFUR says When I read this article the other day it made me think of my mother. Whether from raising two boys or in the past working as a food server and bartender I think she would be an exception to this. I'd like to see the study done again but using older women, mothers, rather than younger professionals. Can anything really scare a mommy?
I reply: Speaking from my brief stint at pre-motherhood, plenty can scare a mommy, mainly the thought of losing her child. But the study isn't talking about conscious fear; it's talking about the kind that makes you stressed-out and distracted without really knowing why. The kind of fear that's a parasitic drain on your mental resources, resources that are crucial for performing well in knowledge-centered jobs like math and science.
I am old enough to have children the same age as a few of my coworkers. But let's assume I'm just a wimp, and that any woman past her mid-30s ought to have the fortitude and sangfroid to blow right past any instincts to be afraid/dismayed by a work situation.
But it seems to me that an older woman's potential for being immune to the effects described in the paper might not help that much. Why? If you're not on track to a career in math, science, or engineering (MSE) by your mid-20s, you've probably lost your window of opportunity to enter those fields as anything above the level of a lab worker or tech support agent. Especially if you're a woman.
Most respected professional jobs in MSE fields require not just a BS but also a Master's degree. Some require a PhD. So you're looking at 5-8 years of college, plus a postdoc. Most female scientists I know go straight through college and their postdocs and don't consider having children until their late 20s or early 30s (which is when female fertility starts to drop off noticeably).
If, on the other hand, you are a woman who gets married out of high school and immediately has kids, you are very unlikely to enter MSE fields at all. Kids are expensive, energy- and time-consuming, and so is college, and frankly it's easier and more immediately financially rewarding to get an associate's degree in nursing than it is to plunge into an 8-year track to become a research physicist.
I'm not saying women can't manage to get PhDs after they've been moms (see below) but it's much, much harder than doing it in your 20s.
I know far more female scientists who are childless than have children, and I don't know any women who've made a successful go of becoming an engineer or scientist after having children in their late teens or early 20s. I do know several male scientists who managed to do so.
Therefore, it seems to me anything that negatively affects a young woman's likelihood of choosing to stick with MSE fields negatively affects the likelihood of women being in those fields, period.
But, yes, an age-differentiated study might prove useful.
perhapsadingo8yrbaby says Very interesting, but I have to admit, something about this rubs me the wrong way. I'm a software developer, and yes, at several jobs, I've been the lone female on a team of 30 dudes. When I was taking undergrad CS courses, there was definitely an initial period of adjustment to the gender ratio. However, as a working professional, I can't say that this situation has adversely affected my performance - just the opposite, in fact. I often find myself in a leadership position on a team of developers, in part because my gender makes it easier for me to earn respect without being regarded as a threat to the male geek ego. As far as the argument regarding older women in MSE fields, my mother was a college dropout who returned to school in her mid-30s, after having 3 children. She completed undergrad and then earned a doctorate in a technical field. Do my mother and I really lie so far outside the norm that our experiences don't count?
I reply: It's awesome that your mom was able to do that -- it's really a tremendous accomplishment, and you and she should be proud. I'm not one snub anyone's life experience as "not counting", but I'd say your experiences are perhaps not typical. And the fact that you are still often the lone female kinds of highlights that -- if more women felt they could pursue (and stick with) MSE fields, you wouldn't find yourself the only woman on a team, would you?
Glowing Fish says As for the entire gap between women and men in Math or Science...I've never noticed this. Is this a real thing that is still going on?
I reply: Yes, it's a real thing and it's still going on:
The proportion of women receiving doctorate degrees in science and engineering has increased slightly in recent years, and in 2003, women accounted for 30 percent of the doctorate degrees in science and nearly 9 percent of those awarded in engineering, according to a National Science Foundation report.
However, relatively few women continue on to high-level faculty positions. In 1972, women made up just 3 percent of full professors in science and engineering fields, a figure that inched up to 10 percent by 1998, according to the NSF. (read more)