The underrepresentation of women in science and engineering can feel insurmountable. Women earn only a quarter of PhDs in the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science. It would appear that the cause of this disparity is deeply rooted and hard to eradicate.
Professors at the University of Colorado, Boulder attempted a seemingly minor intervention with 400 students in a challenging physics class. Twice during the semester, students in the test group wrote for 15 minutes about their most important values. The control group wrote about values that did not have personal relevance for them. These exercises were unrelated to the material of the course, but they displayed an outsized influence on students’ performance.
As published in Science, male students in the control group significantly outscored female students in tests of physics mastery and the course exam. But women who took part in the “values affirmation” exercise erased that gap and even exceeded the male students’ scores on some measures. The results suggest that women students underperformance has more to do with stress and psychological barriers than any innate deficiency.
Their findings reinforce what psychologist Claude Steel has argued in relation to racial stereotypes. Stereotypes influence self-perception, and self-perception determines performance. A simple confidence booster can prime a student to achieve at her or his highest level.