This past semester I had the genuine pleasure of giving my talk about hook up culture to students at my own institution, Occidental College. This was a treat — and also a little bit scary — not only because I was talking to my own community, but because many of the students in the audience had been part of the two studies that informed my talk (here’s one). I wanted to do them justice and make them feel good about their contribution, even if they had mixed feelings about the stories of theirs that I was telling.
In the end, it felt like an incredible catharsis. The students, who I adore, seemed genuinely thrilled that I was there to bring their experiences into the light; whether they were a part of the study or not, they knew that on some level this was about them. Their response was overwhelming. So I post this talk — with relatively bad video and decent audio — but an amazing audience response, as evidence of how receptive college students are to interesting analyses of their lives by (relatively) impartial analysts. And, also: I love you, Oxy! Y’all are my favorite!
Last week I posted about our college President’s suggestion that he is disinclined to believe students who report sexual assault. In response to this, and a series of other problems with our sexual assault policy, the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition is filing a federal complaint with the Office for Civil Rights and a Clery Act complaint. No longer confident that our President and his administration will agree to implement the best practices for reporting and adjudicating sexual assault, faculty and students are turning to external mechanisms.
These seem like extraordinary measures, but I want to be clear that there is nothing extraordinary about the number of sexual assaults or the mishandling of reports by the Occidental administration. Occidental is no more or less unsafe than the vast majority of residential colleges and universities around the country. College attendance is a risk factor for sexual assault — it raises the likelihood that a person will be a victim of an attempted or completed assault — and Occidental is no different in that regard.
Instead of a sign that Occidental has a uniquely broken system, the activities on campus reflect a commitment to making the college a nationwide model. You see, we do believe that Occidental is different than other colleges. It’s extraordinary. And we’re committed to holding it to a higher standard. We want Occidental to usher in a new era of sexual assault policy and improved campus sexual culture. There will be a day when honest, transparent, and fair reporting and adjudication of sexual assaults will be the norm. When that happens, the approach we find on essentially all college campuses today — a high rate of non-report, pressure on victims to stay quiet, sloppy and biased adjudication, and suppression of sexual assault data — will be considered backward, inhumane, and unjust. That day is coming, and we want Oxy to get there first.
New data about the science aptitude of boys and girls around the world inspires me to re-post this discussion from 2010.
Math ability, in some societies, is gendered. That is, many people believe that boys and men are better at math than girls and women and, further, that this difference is biological (hormonal, neurological, or somehow encoded on the Y chromosome).
But actual data about gender differences in math ability tell a very different story. Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang reviewed these differences in the New York Times. They report the following (based on the US unless otherwise noted):
• There is no difference in math aptitude before age 7. Starting in adolescence, some differences appear (boys score approximately 30-35 points higher than girls on the math portion of the SAT). But, scores on different subcategories of math vary tremendously (often with girls outperforming boys consistently).
• When boys do better, they are usually also doing worse. Boys are also more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong. So they overpopulate both tails of the bell curve; boys are both better, and worse, than girls at math.
• That means that how we test for math ability is a political choice. If you report who is best at math, the answer is boys. If you report average math ability, it’s about the same.
• How you decide to test math ability is also political. Even though boys outperform girls on the SAT, it turns out those scores do not predict math performance in classes. Girls frequently outperform boys in the classroom.
• And, since girls often outperform boys in a practical setting, math aptitude (even measured at the levels of outstanding instead of average performance) doesn’t explain sex disparities in science careers (most of which, incidentally, only require you to be pretty good at math, as opposed to wildly genius at it). In any case, scoring high in math is only loosely related to who opts for a scientific career, especially for girls. Many high scoring girls don’t go into science, and many poor scoring boys do.
Now, let’s look at some international comparisons:
• Boys do better in only about ½ of the OECD nations. For nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences. In Iceland, girls outshine boys significantly.
• In Japan, though girls perform less well than the boys, they generally outperform U.S. boys considerably. So finding that boys outperform girls within a country does not mean that boys outperform girls across all countries.
• Still, even in Iceland, girls overwhelmingly express more negative attitudes towards math.
So what’s the real story here? Well, one study found that the gender gap in math ability and the level of gender inequality in a society were highly correlated. That is, “…the gender gap in math, although it historically favors boys, disappears in more gender-equal societies.”
Part of the problem, then, is simply that girls and boys internalize the idea that they will be bad and good at math respectively because of crap like the “Math class is tough!” Barbie (sold and then retracted in 1992):
However, girls’ insecurity regarding their own math ability isn’t just because they internalize cultural norm, their elementary school teachers, who are over 90% female, sometimes do to and they teach math anxiety by example. A recent study has shown that, when they do, girl students do worse at math. From the abstract (this is pretty amazing):
There was no relation between a teacher’s [level of] math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year. By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall.
So, with only the possible exception of genius-level math talent, men and women likely have equal potential to be good (or bad) at math. But, in societies in which women are told that they shouldn’t or can’t do math, they don’t. And, as Fatistician said, “math is a skill.” People who think practicing it is pointless won’t practice it. And those who don’t practice, won’t be any good at it… Y chromosome or no.
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Ms.
Larry H., Shayna A.-S., and Laura F. sent in a recently released study, “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,” that shows compelling evidence for unconscious gender bias among faculty, specifically in some natural and biological science fields. The researchers asked a national sample of 127 biology, physics, and chemistry professors to evaluate the application materials of an undergrad science student who applied for a lab manager position, a job they saw as a gateway to other opportunities. Everyone was given the same materials (excerpts here), but half the applicants were given the first name Jennifer and half were called John. The participants were told the student would be given feedback based on their evaluations.
The results are sobering. There was a significant difference in the average competence, hireability, and mentoring ratings by gender. Professors who thought they were evaluating a female applicant saw a less qualified candidate than professors who were evaluating the identical application materials but thought it was from a man:
So not only was there a gap in perceived competence and fit for the position, but professors were less willing to engage in the type of mentoring that can help students gain both skills and confidence in their abilities — which can be especially important for under-represented groups.
And despite what you might expect, female professors were just as likely to do this as male professors were. Just thinking an applicant was female seems to have touched off an unconscious bias that led them to see female candidates negatively and to be less willing to spend time mentoring them. Professors’ age, tenure status, and discipline didn’t make a difference, either.
The professors were also asked to recommend a starting salary. Again, there was a significant difference. The average suggested beginning salary for the male candidate was $30,238, while for the female student it was $26,507:
The authors point out that these findings are especially noteworthy because, unlike many studies of gender bias that use college students or people who have never had to make the type of hiring or mentoring decisions they’re being asked to engage in for the study, this sample was made up of scientists who are active in their fields, regularly working with students.
Interestingly, when asked how much they liked the candidate, those evaluating the female student gave a higher score than those assigned the male student. But this didn’t translate into seeing the female candidate as competent. The study authors argue that this is strong evidence for subtle gender bias. The professors didn’t express dislike or hostility toward a female candidate. In fact, they tended to actively like her. But as the researchers explained,
…despite expressing warmth toward emerging female scientists, faculty members of both genders appear to be affected by enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases in student evaluation and mentoring. (p. 4)
This study implies that women in the natural and biological sciences (and yes, surely other fields too) still face prejudices that can impact the opportunities they are given to work closely with professors to gain important experiences and skills, as well as limiting their access to jobs and starting them out at a lower salary. These factors can snowball over time, creating larger and larger gaps in career achievements and income as men capitalize on opportunities while women find it impossible to catch up.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
The hidden curriculum refers to the unspoken and unofficial norms, behaviors, and values that kids learn at school in addition to the official curriculum of math, reading, science, and so on. These can include expectations about how to act in public (standing in line), how to interact with non-parental authority figures, patriotism (saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning), and messages about social hierarchies (who it’s ok to ridicule, what it means to get different grades), and so on.
Gender is an important element of the hidden curriculum. Schools reinforce larger cultural messages about gender, including the idea that gender is an essential characteristic for organizing social life.
Marissa P. sent in a great example of this. Steve Bowler tweeted a photo of an assignment that his 8-year-old daughter’s teacher said she did incorrectly. The homework assignment had a list of toys or activities, and the kids were supposed to categorize them based on whether they were for boys, girls, or both, with equal numbers in each box. The assignment takes for granted the gendering of toys, and that there is a “correct” answer to the question of which gender they are appropriate for.
Bowler’s daughter did the assignment differently. After placing 3 items in the “boys” category and 2 in the “girls” group, she made additional boxes to add more things in the “both” column:
But at the bottom, the teacher notes that the assignment wasn’t done correctly. The point of the assignment is to categorize; the implicit message — that boys and girls are different types of people who like different types of things — isn’t questioned. A child sees this list of items and doesn’t gender them in the way the lesson took for granted; the reaction wasn’t to acknowledge her innovation and perhaps question the gendering, it was simply to say she did it wrong.
It’s one small example of the way that the hidden curriculum reinforces gendered messages, teaching kids expectations for gender and that gender itself is a coherent, meaningful characteristic.
Bowler, for the record, said he was proud his daughter failed the assignment and just wished she’d done even worse on it.
UPDATE: Reader Kama notes that the assignment accompanied a reading about a girl who wasn’t allowed to play basketball. The overall message of that story challenged the idea that girls can’t play basketball, requiring kids to categorize the toys and activities by gender as part of the lesson:
…this was assigned following reading a book about a girl who wanted to play basketball but was told it’s a boy’s sport. She kept at it, got better, and earned the respect of the boys who were telling her off earlier. According to the guy who posted the picture, the teacher was trying to discuss gender bias. Did the teacher go about it the right way? No, not really – especially when your end goal is showing that these biases are wrong. That being said, this particular assignment doesn’t really fit with the idea of a hidden gender curriculum. The teacher wasn’t trying to say that these are boy and girl toys, the teacher was trying (and failing) to point out that we are biased in our thinking about what’s for boys and what’s for girls.
Sorry for the misunderstanding on my part.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
In doing research for a book I may write about voluntary childnessness, I came across a telling graphic from the Pew Research Center. First, note that the percent of women age 40-44 without a biological child has almost doubled since the late ’70s. Today about one-in-five such women (18%) have never given birth:
The percent of women is even higher among women with professional degrees (a master’s or equivalent and higher). One-in-four women with a master’s degree, and nearly that many women with PhDs, have no biological children by ages 40-44.
Here’s where the really telling graph comes in. Though women with higher levels of education are less likely to have biological children than other types of women, the trend of increasing childlessness shown above doesn’t apply to them. In fact, women with master’s and PhDs in the most recent data are more likely to have children than their counterparts 14 years ago. In the first half of the 1990s, nearly one-in-three women with professional degrees did not have biological children; today it’s one-in-four. Childbearing among the most educated women, then, bucks the trend. It has gone up.
The data probably reflect greater endorsement of the idea that a woman can, or should be able to, balance both a career and a family, as well as the rise of policies that make that possible. University of Florida sociologist Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, who’s studied this stuff, says as much. It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when having children would destroy a woman’s always-already fragile career; as much as we may love or hate the “mommy track,” at least today there is one. Koropeckyj-Cox also suggests that women with higher incomes may have greater access to infertility treatments, making overcoming health problems or delayed childbearing more possible for them than it is among women with less education.
In any case, the data suggests an interesting story about gender, childbearing, educational achievement, and historical change. I’d be happy to hear more interpretation in the comments.
Last week, Stephen Colbert discussed gender and work with guest Liza Mundy. The clip quickly hits on several trends and patterns that sociologists highlight when studying gender in the workplace: the pay gap, women disproportionately working in the helping professions, the impacts of large economic shifts that have reduced the prominence of manufacturing, and the tendency of men to flee particular jobs once large numbers of women begin to do them. It’s a brief overview of many of the major dynamics influencing the experiences of men and women in the workplace today:
I haven’t read Mundy’s book, though, so I cannot say quite what the evidence is that this has anything to do with the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey.
UPDATE: Note that in his post today, Philip Cohen questions some of Mundy’s data, particularly about the number of wives out-earning their husbands. I think the Colbert segment is useful for identifying some large-scale trends affecting gender and work (changes in education, the feminization of certain types of work, etc.), but Mundy’s book may be problematic, unfortunately.