The Frustrating Way Men Underestimate Women In The Classroom

Even when women are as good as their male peers, they don't get recognized.
According to a new study, a woman's success in the classroom is frequently underrated compared to her male peers'.
According to a new study, a woman's success in the classroom is frequently underrated compared to her male peers'.
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Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

It's no secret that women in STEM fields face a host of challenges. A new study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, explores the way female students are viewed by their peers and those attitudes' critical impact on women's decisions to continue pursuing their studies. Researchers at the University of Washington explored the way students perceived each other's success in the classroom and discovered men consistently undervalued their female classmates' performances and gave more credit to their fellow male classmates.

The Setup

Researchers surveyed about 1,700 undergraduate students in three introductory biology classes. The students anonymously listed classmates they thought were "strong in their understanding of classroom material." Researchers dubbed students with the most nominations in each class "celebrities." To compare characteristics of these "celeb" students, researchers also collected information about students' "outspokenness" from the course instructors. Students' genders were determined by information offered during student enrollment.

The Findings

Researchers found that both men and women gave a "boost" to their classmates of the same gender, but at very different rates. The boost women gave to their fellow female classmates was negligible, whereas the boost men gave to other men was significant. Or as The Washington Post succinctly put it, speaking to one of the two lead researchers, anthropologist Daniel Grunspan:

Female students gave other female students a recognition “boost” equivalent to a GPA bump of 0.04 — too tiny to indicate any gender preference, Grunspan said. Male students, however, awarded fellow male students a recognition boost equivalent to a GPA increase of 0.76.

"On this scale," the report asserted, "the male nominators’ gender bias is 19 times the size of the female nominators.'"

To break it down even further, the researchers pointed out that, "for an outspoken female to be nominated by males at the same level as an outspoken male her performance would need to be over three-quarters of a GPA point higher than the male’s."

The "celebrities" in the classroom were also more likely to be male, and men were far more likely to see their male peers as knowledgeable. In two of the classes, the top four "celebrities" were men. The top three "celebrity" students in the other class were also men. A few women were called out enough by their peers to reach "celebrity" status, but, again, at a more infrequent rate.

"While some females rank towards the top, the most well-known females are tied for 4th in two classes and are 5th most well-known in the other," the researchers wrote.

The study does point out the male students in the classes "on average scored slightly higher than female students," and according to their instructors, they were also more outspoken. The outspoken women with just as much academic success as these students, however, were overlooked and never reached "the same celebrity status" as their male counterparts.

The Takeaway

This study emphasizes the barriers and bias women face academically and professionally. Even when women achieve high grades and are outspoken in the classroom, their male colleagues consistently underrate them. This can be a blow to their self-confidence and push women out of STEM fields. (Anecdotally, it seems plausible that this same phenomenon could occur in other male-dominated industries.) Basically, unconscious gender bias is always there -- and it has real consequences for men and women pursuing the same professional opportunities.

As the researchers point out in the study, gender equality, in STEM and beyond, is about more than numbers: "Without addressing social dynamics that perpetuate gender biases in the college classroom, simply increasing the number of young women entering STEM majors may not be enough."

To read the study in its entirety, head to PLOS ONE.

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