People still perceive women as unsuitable to be scientists

Harmful stereotypes are likely to blame for persistent discrimination and harassment

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In 2016 women still face gender discrimination and harassment in science. Many psychologists have studied gender stereotypes in the hope that understanding them can help reduce the sexism that is so prevalent in the scientific community. A team of researchers at Wellesley College, led by Linda Carli, have been investigating these stereotypes in a novel way and the results aren’t good.

Lots of studies have looked at the stereotypes of men and women, but their new approach also looked at stereotypes of scientists as a group of people. This means that the stereotypes of different genders can be compared with those of scientists. An overlap between groups means that people perceive the groups as having similar qualities. The paper, to be published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, reports two related studies that showed how stereotypes of successful scientists overlapped with stereotypes of men.

In one study, participants were given descriptive words and asked to rate them 1-5 for how well they describe people of specific groups. Those groups were men, women, and successful scientists. This allowed the researchers to investigate differences between how women and men perceived each other, themselves, and scientists as a whole.

The researchers found that the stereotypes of men and successful scientists were very similar. In other words, good scientists were thought to possess qualities that are perceived as being typical of men. In contrast, stereotypes about women were usually at odds with perceptions of what makes a good scientist. Men and scientists were seen as being more agentic (think for themselves, take risks, more competitive etc) and women were seen as more communal (kind, helpful etc). According to the study, the ideal scientist appears to be someone with “exaggerated masculinity, but with fewer of the more negative qualities associated with masculinity.”

The other study was similar but this time focused on specific scientific fields. The same descriptive method was used but for groups like “successful biologist” or “successful physicist”. This allowed the researchers to compare fields and see how the number of women in a field influenced the prevalence of stereotypes. The key finding here was that the more women in a scientific field, the more similar the perceptions of women and successful scientists are.

The saddest thing about these stereotypes is that women are often as likely to hold them as men. Women often come to see science as something men are ideally suited to. Despite some progress in recent years, women are still perceived as poorly suited to be scientists and this likely explains the persistent discrimination and harassment in the science.

It’s not all doom and gloom though as the paper suggests how perceptions can be changed. The initial study found that only women at all-women colleges saw an overlap between how women and scientists are perceived. Being in a women’s college and being exposed to successful female scientists can lead women to see their gender as well-suited for science.

Combining this with the finding that women are more likely to perceive similarities in women and successful scientists when there are more women in a field, perhaps real progress can be made. Women are less likely to fall into the trap of having negative stereotypes about their own gender when women are allowed to achieve prominent positions in the community and fields aren’t so male-dominated.


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