What’s a woman (scientist) gotta do to get a little recognition?

Margaret Hamilton (left) and unidentified (please help us identify them) ISRO rocket scientists (right).

Margaret Hamilton (left) and unidentified (please help us identify them) ISRO rocket scientists (right).

The majority of the world still sees science as a male-dominated field, but the good news is that the perception can be changed. While progress is slow, exposure to women scientists in classrooms and workplaces is raising awareness that women belong to science just as much as men.

A study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University in the US found that the stereotype of associating science with men more often than women exists globally. This was the case even in nations where about half the science majors from colleges and universities, as well as employed researchers, were female.

It may come as a surprise to know that people in The Netherlands showed the strongest male-oriented stereotypical attitudes. There is a simple explanation for why countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, which lead the world in gender equality in many other measures, fared so badly when it comes to stereotypical thinking. It is because more men than women actually are in science in these countries.

David I. Miller, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Northwester University, explains.

“Dutch men outnumbered Dutch women by nearly four to one among both science majors and employed researchers. The strong stereotypes in the Netherlands, therefore, reflect the reality of male dominance in science there.”

On the other hand, more than half the people hold the same stereotype in Argentina and Bulgaria, even though women make up about half of colleges and university science majors and employed researchers.

There is reason for optimism in the study’s findings, because stereotypes were not as dominant in countries with a higher percentage of females in the science field. According to Alice H. Eagly, coauthor of the study and a professor in psychology at Northwestern, experiences in college could be a stepping stone to correcting gender-science biases. “Stereotypes should erode more quickly for individuals who see many female science majors in their classes, for instance,” she said.

“Simply taking a college mathematics course from female instructors is generally not sufficient to change stereotypes,” she cautions. “Changing these persistent beliefs likely requires seeing female scientists across diverse sources such as news articles, television shows and textbooks.”

The study covered 66 countries in all, and data was collected from almost 3,50,000 people. India was not one of the countries in the study. Data for the study was collected through a website on which participants rated how much they connected sciences to males or females. In addition to this, the website was used to assess the speed at which users associated science words (like “math” and “physics”) with masculine words (like “boy” and “man”). This kind of testing has been used to show implicit biases that people may hold, even if they explicitly say something else. The participants were not asked whether they thought men or women were more capable in the science field.

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Marcia C. Linn from UC Berkely is also listed as an author. THe study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

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