How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science
by SHANKAR VEDANTAM
It isn't just that fewer women choose to go into these fields. Even when they go into these fields and are successful, women are more likely than men to quit.
"They tend to drop out at higher rates than their male peers," said Toni Schmader, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia. "As women enter into careers, the levels of advancement aren't as steep for women as for men. ...
When male scientists talked to other scientists about their research, it energized them. But it was a different story for women.
"For women, the pattern was just the opposite, specifically in their conversations with male colleagues," Schmader said. "So the more women in their conversations with male colleagues were talking about research, the more disengaged they reported being in their work."
Disengagement predicts that someone is at risk of dropping out.
There was another sign of trouble.
When female scientists talked to other female scientists, they sounded perfectly competent. But when they talked to male colleagues, Mehl and Schmader found that they sounded less competent.
One obvious explanation was that the men were being nasty to their female colleagues and throwing them off their game. Mehl and Schmader checked the tapes.
"We don't have any evidence that there is anything that men are saying to make this happen," Schmader said.
But the audiotapes did provide a clue about what was going on. When the male and female scientists weren't talking about work, the women reported feeling more engaged.
For Mehl and Schmader, this was the smoking gun that an insidious psychological phenomenon called "stereotype threat" was at work. It could potentially explain the disparity between men and women pursuing science and math careers.