Name a notable female scientist. If you find that difficult, you’re not alone – 25% of people surveyed come up blank on female scientists. Of the people who can, most name Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (pictured above). Few can name a second — and stereotypes about women in science might be to blame.
In a study recently published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, participants were asked to assign characteristics to either men, women, or scientists, to identify their perceived stereotype for each group. Traits assigned to men and women largely followed gender stereotypes – women were assigned more ‘communal’ traits, like ‘kind’, ‘warm’, and ‘understanding’, while men were assigned more ‘agentic’ traits, like ‘assertive’, ‘ambitious’, and ‘independent’. But traits associated with scientists better overlapped with male rather than female stereotypes. The lack of ‘female’ traits associated with scientists might discourage women from pursuing a career in science and contribute to the discrimination of current female scientists.
Ironically, the ‘masculine’ traits assigned to scientists aren’t linked with success in science. According to Dr. Lina Carli, the study’s lead researcher:
“There are no gender differences in the traits that predict good science… In science, you need extroversion, intelligence, openness to new ideas, creativity…none of these traits differ in men and women.”
And the study may have identified why the gender gap in science persists, despite a million-dollar diversity push by the National Science Foundation and the White House. Students surveyed from all-women colleges (compared to co-ed institutions) were more likely to assign similar characteristics to women and scientists. Carli believes that the higher proportion of female faculty at women’s colleges, especially in the sciences, may lead more women to see themselves in science careers.
In fact, in the study’s second survey, participants were asked to assign traits to specific types of scientists, like chemists, psychologists, and computer scientists. In contrast to the stereotype for a general scientist, participants in this survey found more similarities between women and specific scientists. In fact, these reported similarities increased for fields with a larger number of female scientists, like biology or psychology. Carli argues that this result may mean “that women have to predominate in a field before people perceive them as [just as suitable for the role] as men.”