Gender Bias in the Classroom Is Pushing Women Out of STEM Programs

A study finds that both instructors and male classmates are creating an unsupportive environment.
(Photo: Corey Rich/Getty Images)
Feb 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Reed is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at the University of Southern California.

Though it will come as little surprise to any woman who’s ever had something “mansplained” to her, there is now proof that men are often encouraged to think they’re smarter than women.

A new study from a team of researchers at the University of Washington surveyed 1,700 biology students at UW and found that male students in science classes consistently ranked other male classmates as having a better understanding of course material than female classmates.

Regardless of performance, the men over-ranked their male classmates by three-quarters of a grade point, whereas female students showed little preference to either gender.

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“Something is going on in the classroom that is either being influenced by currently held implicit biases or that is helping build implicit biases,” co–lead author Dan Grunspan said in a statement.

Gender bias among the male students was estimated to be 19 times stronger than among female students, which the authors suggested originates with the instructors.

The study found that both male and female professors favored their male students with subtle behaviors. Not only did they call on them more often in class, but they were also more likely to respond to their emails and spend time mentoring them outside of class. The effect then trickled down to the male students and left female students feeling self-conscious.

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Because female students were not being sufficiently supported by their classmates or their instructors, the study found they were more likely to drop their STEM majors and do so earlier in their college career than their male counterparts.

“To stay in STEM you have to believe you can do it, and one of the things that can convince you of that is your peers saying you can do it,” co–lead author Sarah Eddy said in a statement.

But retention is not enough. To combat the gender bias and alter the social dynamic of a classroom, the authors suggested that instructors encourage female study groups, use a randomized system of calling on students for class participation, and create smaller discussion groups that offer a “less intimidating” learning environment for women.

The authors said the results of the study should serve as a warning. When this class of students enters the real world, they will have the ability to make future hiring and promotion decisions and shape policy.

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“Because these are millennials showing this pattern, it means the age-old problem of gender bias may not go away simply because we have a new generation in charge,” Grunspan said.

The authors—many of whom are college instructors—might also have cause for concern when it comes to gender bias in the classroom.

A study published last month in ScienceOpen found that male students attending the Paris Institute of Political Studies rated male professors higher than female professors. However, when the researchers looked at the University of California, Berkeley, the female students became primary offenders, rating male professors higher than female professors.

Considering student ratings are often part of the criteria for rehiring adjunct faculty each year, these findings might give pause to female professors, who also face judgment from students on the basis of their appearance.

The authors of the UW study admitted that eliminating systematic gender bias is not an easy feat, but they hope to incite some change with further research.

“You can only affect so much. There’s been at least 18 years of socialization. You do what you can to interrupt that,” Eddy said.