UVa Today: Unconscious Stereotypes

July 16, 2009

According to a new study at the University of Virginia, unconscious stereotypes about men being better in science may contribute to gender gaps in science and math performance around the world. One of the professors leading the study, Dr. Fred Smyth visited the Newsplex for Thursday's UVa Today segment to talk more about the study.

"Our work builds on several decades of psychological research demonstrating that much of our minds’ work takes place automatically, behind the scenes of our awarenes," said Smyth. . "Not only well-known reflexive stuff like the fight-or-flight response, but work that influences important social judgments, too."

The researchers focused on how unconscious or implicit stereotypes about science and gender may form and influence interest and achievement in science, especially for girls and women. "Of course, people can’t usually tell you what their implicit stereotypes are, so we use indirect measures that don’t rely on self-report," said Smyth.

Smyth said people have been demonstrating one of these methods—the Implicit Association Test or IAT—on the Internet for more than 10 years and now more than half-a-million participants worldwide have taken the “gender-science” version. It requires you to quickly sort together words about either males or females (like “he” and “she”) with words about science. Anyone can try it by Googling “Project Implicit” and then clicking the “Demonstration” button.

"Implicit associations develop through experience, so if one routinely observes or hears about girls achieving comparably to boys in science class the links between science and male should weaken," said Smyth. "But stereotypes are also known to shape how we perceive and interact with the environment."

"Probably the most promising approach is to promote for all children more of what science educators already recognize as the best learning strategy," says Smyth. "That is, hands-on chances to use scientific methods to solve simulated or even real problems of consequence."

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