The Lab Rat: Can a Simple Writing Exercise Close the Gender Gap?

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The gender gap in incomes has narrowed in recent years, and there’s some evidence that the recession has been easier on women’s jobs than on men’s — although that might be because women earn less. But women are still way behind in the fields of science and technology: in 2006, only 28% of the Ph.D.s awarded in physical sciences were earned by women. Women quit Ph.D. programs in science and tech fields nearly 10% more often than men. Now a study published Nov. 26 in Science suggests a way to address this problem before it starts.

The study posits that the gender gap is at least partly due to a psychological phenomenon called stereotype threat. “Becoming aware that one could be seen in light of a negative stereotype about one’s group has been shown to undermine performance on difficult tests,” the paper says. The theory is that if you are worried about confirming a stereotype, your worry will distract you from performing well, so you will — ironically — help validate the very idea you are perturbed about. (More on Explaining the Complicated Women + Math Formula)

In the new paper, whose first author is Akira Miyake of the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he and five colleagues looked at whether a psychological intervention called values affirmation could reduce the gender gap in test scores in a large, basic physics class for undergraduates at his university. Values affirmation is an exercise that involves writing for 15 minutes about principles that are important to you. The idea is that if you reflect on self-defining values before a test, you won’t be as vulnerable to a psychological threat like stereotyping.

Miyake and his colleagues randomly assigned 399 students — 116 of them women — into either the values-affirmation exercise or a control exercise in which students were asked to write about values important to other people but not important to them. The students did this twice, once in the first week of class and once before the first of three midterms. The results showed that the values-affirmation exercise significantly reduced the gender gap in scores on both exams given for the class and a national standardized test the students took. (More on Explaining the Gender Gap: Obesity Costs Women a Lot More Than Men)

Intrigued, I decided to see if this method would work on me. As a gay man, I might be susceptible to stereotype threat, since I do occasionally spend time wondering what my editors really think about issues like equal marriage rights. The Science study is explicitly focused on science and math, so I decided to use a quick online algebra test. I took it twice one day and twice the next day, and each day I separated my performance by writing a short essay about my values. I followed the instructions given to the students to write about any one of the following values: “being good at art; creativity; relationships with family and friends; government or politics [which is not really a ‘value’]; independence; learning; athletic ability; belonging to a social group (such as your community, racial group, or school club); music; career; spiritual or religious values; and sense of humor.”

One day, I wrote about my relationship with my friends, and on the next day, I wrote about my belonging to the gay subculture. (I’m sure no one cares, but I’d be happy to send you my little essays if you e-mail me.) Then I took the algebra test again.

My scores didn’t change. I scored 9 out of 10 on all the tests. My time also wasn’t significantly different on each test: each time, it took me about a minute to complete the basic algebra test on level 5 (out of 10). (My times were 1:00, 1:03, 1:02, and :59.)

Still, my little experiment wasn’t nearly so involved as what the students in Boulder went through. They weren’t taking a short algebra test but long, complicated physics tests. So I decided to try the experiment again by taking a practice SAT test in math.

This turned out to be an occasion for deep embarrassment. I bought McGraw Hill’s 12 SAT Practice Tests with PSAT (Second Edition). I took two of the Math tests, one before and one after yet another writing exercise. (This time I wrote about my love of science fiction.) But at 40, I have forgotten so much algebra and geometry that most of the questions looked almost as though they were in a foreign language. I had to guess at roughly half. My scores­ — which were so abysmally low that I’m not telling — didn’t significantly change from one sitting to the next; on the peculiar 200-to-800-point scale that the SAT still uses, the two scores were 10 points apart, which is the difference of approximately two questions out of 70. (More on The Lab Rat: How to Take a Position of Power)

(I also then took two of the Reading tests, which, I’m pleased to say, I aced both times. I did not take the Writing test because it seemed pointless — I write for a living, so presumably I would ace it as well. And if I didn’t, I didn’t want to know about it.)

Curious about why the University of Colorado writing exercise wasn’t working to improve my performance, I went back to the Science paper. It turns out that men usually don’t improve their scores when they try the writing exercise. In fact, in the U.C. Boulder physics class, the men who wrote essays affirming their own values actually had lower scores than those who wrote essays about values important to other people but not themselves. Women had the opposite experience: the scores of those who wrote essays about themselves were significantly higher than those who wrote essays about others.

These variations in performance closed the gender gap on the class exams (the three midterms, plus the final) by 61%. They closed the gender gap completely on the standardized test, the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation.

But it seems odd to close the gender gap not only by helping women but also by punishing men. The Science paper addresses this problem only vaguely. “In the present case,” the authors write in unpublished supporting material for the paper, “there are possible reasons why affirmation could be counterproductive for a person belonging to a group free of pervasive threats tied to their social identity. For instance, affirmation might divert their attention … from the performance domain, remind them of alternative domains where they could invest their effort, or make their sense of self-integrity less dependent on performing well.” So which is it? The paper seems to leave the most interesting question on the cutting-room floor (or, in this case, on page 22 of the unpublished supporting materials).

It’s fascinating to me that women improve their scores by focusing on themselves and that men hurt their scores when they focus on themselves. At the very least, the new paper suggests a highly engaging follow-up. (More on The Lab Rat: How to Improve Memory in 15 Minutes)

In terms of how to combat the gender gap, other approaches that don’t punish men seem more promising. Earlier this month, Arizona State researchers launched an online resilience-training program for women in science and tech. The program, called CareerWISE, is based in solid research funded by the National Science Foundation. I’m all for closing the gender gap, but programs like CareerWISE are a better approach than in-class interventions that hurt men even as they help women.

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