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Even best women feel the chill in math, science

Original post made on Oct 17, 2007

A study by a former Stanford University researcher has found that even the most talented women mathematicians and scientists are made to feel uncomfortable when they are outnumbered by their male peers.

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Comments (17)

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Posted by a working woman
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 17, 2007 at 2:44 pm

Women ought to get together to exchange ideas more. It's makes for a nicer and more collegial professional atmosphere where women respect each other for their ideas.

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Posted by Sarah
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 17, 2007 at 3:21 pm

Isn't that why there is Mills College?

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Posted by yet another parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Oct 17, 2007 at 3:56 pm

Here's another study which comes to a similar conclusion, with a twist. The short article is at Web Link titled, “Study: stereotypes alone can hurt female performance”. The intro blurb:

“A popular stereotype that boys are better at math than girls causes anxiety in girls that undermines their performance—both in math and in other areas, researchers have found.

”Investigators found that the worrying undermines women’s working, or short-term, memory, the type needed to actively juggle information in the head. The resulting distraction can also hinder success in other academic areas because mental abilities don’t immediately rebound after being compromised by math anxiety, researchers said.”

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Posted by Boys are people, too
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 17, 2007 at 11:55 pm

boys get math anxiety, too

how about some research on boys, and the travails that they go through? It's about time!

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Posted by yet another parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Oct 18, 2007 at 12:40 am

That was my initial reaction, too. The title itself, "Stereotypes alone can hurt female performance", is a bit of a stereotype perpetuator. Would the same headline with "male" substituted sell? Probably not. My hunch is that there's a bit of truth to the study for both girls and boys. What I'd find really interesting is the degree of difference.

Here’s one for you, Boys. Web Link This one’s about body image, another topic that’s more frequently associated with females. This study “finds that depictions of the male body as a decorative object may also harm boys' self-esteem.” (And to the women who read the article, tell me you don’t come away with a “Ya think?” reaction.)

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Posted by all possibilities
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 18, 2007 at 8:22 am

Why didn't the study also show a video where women outnumbered men and publish those results?

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2007 at 9:54 am

Forty-seven study subjects would hardly seem to produce definitive results. Seems like we're constantly getting shocking headlines in the news based on very small studies.

I was a computer science/engineering major and worked as a software developer. I was "outnumbered" by male colleagues, but neither I nor other women I worked with ever felt "threatened and anxious." And for the most part we were treated as equals.

Articles like this -- based on extremely limited data -- certainly don't encourage young women to go into math and science.

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Posted by RealityCheck
a resident of another community
on Oct 18, 2007 at 10:25 am

From the weblinked story:

1) "Even competent women in those fields feel threatened and anxious when outnumbered, Murphy said."

Replace "women" with virtually anything you want (men, minorities, dogs, etc.) and you get an equally true statement.

2) "Low number of women in math and science discourage other women from entering those fields, Murphy said."
"About half saw a video where the ratio of men to women was equal, while the other half saw a video where men outnumbered women three to one, which is the actual ratio in many math, science and engineering fields."

This is one of those half-truths that is taken as the gospel truth. If you actually look at the figures, you'll find that about one-half of bachelor's degrees in "science and engineering" are awarded to women. There are plenty of women studying biology, chemistry and even math - more than one-half overall getting degrees.

On the other hand, what women aren't studying are engineering and computer science, where it is more like one-in-three graduates as was cited in the story.

So if you want to point the finger, point it at engineering and computer science, but don't exaggerate the problem - that doesn't serve any good purpose in the end, only leading to women avoiding ALL of science and engineering.

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Posted by Another perspective
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2007 at 11:20 am

I know of one small high tech company quite well. There are more women engineers than men and there are more women applicants than men. The company would like to have more men as several of the women are in the throws of maternity leave which is causing problem for the various projects, but either the men are not up to scratch, or are getting the better jobs elsewhere. Either way, there seems to be an abundance of women around.

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Posted by perspective
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2007 at 3:49 pm

Great point, above, re:engineering and computer programming.

The subtext of it all is that it is a fixable "issue" and the implication is that we should "do something"...

Neither is true. We may as well say that it is a problem that needs fixing that not more males want to teach elementary school because they feel intimidated being outnumbered by females and being told that women are naturally better at nurturing those young minds... and that we should "do something".

Sometimes we just have to accept the reality of life.

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Posted by Anne
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 23, 2007 at 1:12 pm

My experience as a mathematician/scientific programmer in physics research for 38 years is quite contrary to the premise of the article at the start of this thread--more like what Pat wrote of experiencing equality.

First off, I got my first job because a male physicist insisted on having a female mathematician/assistant and searched for one. (In 1956 it was legal to specify "male" or "female" for a job opening.) On that job and subsequent ones, I was always treated well/equally. I do realize that this is not the perceived universal experience. I partly attribute my experience to the quality of the men with whom I worked, because they were above feeling "threatened" just because there was a woman in their "field".

The article refers to measurements, made on undergraduate women as they viewed a video of a conference where women were outnumbered three to one, showing that "their hearts beat faster, their blood pressure rose and they sweated more". Perhaps the measurements indicate something other than a feeling of being threatened, maybe a feeling of excitement and pride and anticipation in personally achieving a similar situation after graduation.

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Posted by peter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2007 at 4:30 pm

there are not many women NLF quarterbacks either.

It is interesting that pc academics and the left insist that gays are

genetically different and claim their behavior is innate yet these same

people deny genetic differences between mens and womens abilities in math and science in the face of overwhelming evidence that there are differences.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2007 at 5:33 pm


I agree with you completely. I believe a Harvard Professor (I think it was Harvard, but may have been someother University) ultimately had to resign because of his comment about the differences between male and female.

I read something recently that showed that when a group of men and women were left in a crowded flea market for a period of time and then all told to go find the food stall as quickly as possible, it was the women who found the stall first. The men could all remember the stall but couldn't find it amongst all the others. The women found it quickly without any problems. The genetic idea that the women were the gatherers while the men were the hunters was shown to be accurate. The men systematically went up and down the paths while the women were able to "see" a bird's eye view of the market and navigate directly. The men were hunting their prey, while the women remembered where the plants that provided the food were growing.

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Posted by MaleWithABrain
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2007 at 10:19 pm

What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks does a flea market hunt have to do with women being able to tackle math and science??

"People deny genetic differences between mens and womens abilities in math and science in the face of overwhelming evidence that there are differences"

WHAT OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE?? - Did you not note above that, other than engineering and computer science, women ARE getting science degrees just as much as men??

The only thing I see here are two male IDIOTS talking.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2007 at 9:42 am


My point about the flea market was to show that there are ways the male and female brain work are different. The flea market analogy shows that evolution has made the brains of each more suitable to different tasks. Women tend to be gatherers of food. How many women do you know who buy their produce at one store, dairy at another and dry goods elsewhere? Men tend to be hunters. Men are one stop shoppers and will buy in bulk so that they will not have to go out "hunting" for food for some time. Women, (although Costco and buy one get one free changes that) are less likely to bulk buy perishable food because they know it causes waste.

Is this math and science? Not rocket science, but certainly using mental math and science in very practical ways. When it comes to choosing subjects to study or career choices, both genders will probably tend to choose something they are good at and find interesting. The way they then use their knowledge will be what causes the different outcome. Men know that they will probably be working for 40 years at least when they start their careers. Women tend to be more flexible knowing that they may change careers as circumstances in their lives change. This difference in outlook is also a big factor in career choice.

By the way, what makes you think that I am a "male idiot" talking? If this isn't gender based assumptions on stereotyping that you are talking about, then what is?

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Posted by yet another parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Oct 24, 2007 at 9:43 am

MaleWithABrain: "What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks does a flea market hunt have to do with women being able to tackle math and science??"
Spacial skills. These are a critical part of mathematical thinking. Do you need the citations to back this up, or can you, MaleWithABrain, research it yourself?

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Posted by peter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 24, 2007 at 4:14 pm

In terms of evidence--- how many science nobel prize winners have been women?

This does not show that women are incapable in science or that they cannot earn college degrees in the field.

However-- the best minds in science are male.
Interestingly such science geniuses often show mild symptoms of asperger's syndrome which in turn is overwhelming seen in males.

Recent research at Oxford shows a relationship between these two factors.

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