The Mismeasure of Woman
By Sarah Ballard
“There are few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
- Stephen Jay Gould (1)
In a recent psychology study conducted in an undergraduate physics course at the University of Colorado, students were asked to complete a fifteen-minute writing exercise in their first discussion section (2). They were told that the exercise was meant to improve their communication skills. The study instructed them to reflect on the values that are important in their lives: some of the choices were independence, creativity, relationships with family and friends, and sense of humor. The students then wrote a few sentences about why these values mattered in their lives.
The exercise was actually designed to test a key hypothesis about a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”, which describes a scenario in which the activation of a self-relevant stereotype can cause a person to underperform, thus fulfilling the stereotype. For example, the act of reminding a woman student of the stereotype that women perform worse at math than men may actually cause her to perform worse on a math test than she would have if she had not been reminded. Stereotype threat has been documented to occur both in intelligence tests administered to African-Americans (3) and math tests administered to women (4).
The scientists conducting the study at Colorado compared the scores of men and women on a diagnostic exam designed to test their conceptual understanding of introductory mechanics. They found that the values affirmation exercise had a profound effect on the scores of women students, when compared to the scores of women who received the control writing exercise (in which students selected the value that mattered least to them, and wrote about why it might matter to someone else). The performance gap of about 10 percentage points on the diagnostic exam, which existed between male and female students in the control group, was completely closed in the values affirmation group: that is, although women received a score which was worse by about 10% in the control group, this gap was nonexistent in students who had completed the values affirmation assignment (2).
This result indicates that it’s possible to counteract stereotype threat; in the original publication of the study, the authors write that values “affirmation buffered women against this identity? y threat” (2). The improvement in test scores after values affirmation was especially marked in women who subscribed to the idea that men are inherently better at science (as determined from a separate questionnaire). These were the students in whom the most substantial improvement was observed, indicating that the more internalized the stereotype, the more the affirmation mattered.
I’ve been a graduate student in the physical sciences for going on four years now. I’ve read a lot of the academic literature about the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) biases faced by women in science. But my experiences talking informally with my female colleagues often get me thinking the most about the day-to-day reality of being a woman in science. One of the most insidious challenges to women scientists, and yet the most difficult to eradicate, are the internalized manifestations of the messages that are broadcasted by an as-yet male-dominated science culture. It is my opinion that one of the most important and immediately useful tools that can be given to a young woman scientist is the ability to recognize both that these messages exist, and that they have the very real ability to impact how we think about ourselves and perform in relation to them. In other words, we must learn the tools to “buffer ourselves against identity threat,” the same technique that proved so effective for the students in the University of Colorado physics course.
Stereotype threat is intimately linked with another phenomenon commonly observed in women scientists: the “impostor syndrome.” While stereotype threat relies on broad generalization, the impostor syndrome describes secret feelings of personal inadequacy in authentically talented, high-achieving people. Impostors fear being “unmasked” and revealed to be phony, all of their very real accomplishments notwithstanding. The most common response I get when I describe the syndrome to my female colleagues is: “but that’s me!” In the original 1978 discovery article on the impostor syndrome in women, the authors posit that the women in their study “tend to attribute their successes to temporary causes, such as luck or effort” (4), and that this misattribution of credit can be understood in the context, once again, of social stereotypes about women. These negative stereotypes induce women to “find explanation for their accomplishments other than their own intelligence -- such as fooling other people” (4).
One of the techniques proposed in a more recent Nature article to mitigate the impostor syndrome was very similar to the values affirmation exercise that was demonstrated to be so effective: “Make a list of your strengths. Look back at examples of your own successful work, or positive reviews, and remind yourself of your own accomplishments” (6). I also recommend giving voice to your impostor feelings: talking about them with other students and with the counselors at HUHS will make very clear that this syndrome is common. In my experience, nearly every colleague to whom I have confessed impostor thoughts has had these thoughts themselves.
The commonality between both stereotype threat and the impostor syndrome in young women scientists is that it’s possible to build a shield against them by reminding yourself of the things that matter: your personal talents and values. In this way, it’s possible for individual women to begin to tackle the feeling of the “limitations within,” as referenced in the Stephen Jay Gould quote above, even within a culture that won’t be turning down the volume on harmful messages anytime soon. After reading about the Colorado study, I thought carefully about which values I would have chosen. I value highly my ability to connect with people, to empathize with them, and to understand their feelings from sometimes very subtle gestures and expressions. If you were doing the values affirmation exercise, what would you write about?
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(1) Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton &
(2) Miyake, Akira, et al. “Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation.” Science, 330, 6008 (2010).
(3) Steele, C. M. “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance.” American Psychology. 52, 613 (1997).
(4) S. J. Spencer, C. M. Steele, D. Quinn. “Stereotype Threat and Women's Math Performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 35, 4 (1999).
(5) Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15, 3 (1978)
(6) Kaplan, K. “Unmasking the Impostor.” Nature. 459 (2009)
About the Author
Harvard GSAS; Astronomy
I'm Sarah, a fourth year Harvard graduate student in astronomy. I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 with a degree in astrophysics, although I actually started out with an intended major in Peace and Conflict Studies! My current astronomy research is in the field of exoplanets that transit their host stars. As a graduate student, I've participated in two NASA missions devoted to observing transits: EPOXI (which repurposed the Deep Impact spacecraft to look at stars which
were already known to host planets) and Kepler (which is finding new planets, even as we speak, some of them perhaps Earth-sized!). I'm also the treasurer for the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE), and a mentor to an undergraduate woman concentrating in science through the WISTEM program at Harvard. In my spare time, I love to take pictures at the Boston arboretum, read Haruki Murakami, drink ginger steamers at Cafe Crema, and play with my one-year-old goddaughter