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Blokey atmos drives women away from sci/tech

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A PhD student at Stanford has published research indicating that the low numbers of women in science, maths and engineering-related fields is not caused by any gender-related tendency to be bad at hard sums. Rather, the ladies avoid these fields of endeavour simply because there are so few females already present, and because of the nasty blokey environment thus engendered.

Mary Murphy, working towards a doctorate in social psychology, led research on both male and female undergraduates from the tricky-calculations departments. The test students were shown videos of a pretend summer boffinry conference in their subject areas. One video depicted a dream world in which such a conference was 50-50 gender balanced; the other showed a more realistic scenario with three blokes to every woman.

The undergrads were wired up to sensors while watching the vids, and had to answer questions. The tests were designed to measure "physiological arousal... vigilance... sense of belonging and desire to participate in the conference".

"The results are telling," says the press release. It appears that the women watching the realistic video swarming with men experienced faster heartbeats and began to sweat. They also became "more vigilant to their physical environment".

It appears that even relatively innocuous signs of a hard-sciences kind of atmos around a place can be a problem.

"Throughout the testing room, Murphy planted cues related to Math, Science, and Engineering such as magazines like Science, Scientific American, and Nature on the coffee table and a portrait of Einstein and the periodic table on the walls," according to the release. Women students already upset by the male-dominated video apparently noticed these a lot. Murphy theorises that these scary masculine posters and mags may have drained the ladies' flustered brains of what little capacity they had left. This could be why girls - who normally ace boys at school - still lag behind the chaps in the boffinous subjects.

"It would not be surprising if the general cognitive functioning of women in the threatening setting was inhibited because of this allocation of attention toward maths, science and engineering-related cues," Murphy wrote.

Curiously, neither of the vids made the chaps in the test group get sweaty or aroused. However, unsurprisingly they - like the women - would have preferred to attend the conference that had all the girls.

Murphy - clearly no fool - reportedly says that "while it’s interesting that both men and women want to be where the women are, the motivations of men and women for wanting to be there are probably quite different." (Mental head slap.)

The paper resulting from all this is called Signaling Threat: How Situational Cues Affect Women in Math, Science, and Engineering Settings. It's published in the October issue of Psychological Science, which is "ranked among the top ten general psychology journals for impact", apparently.

The journal scribes reckon the research demonstrates that ladies' fear/dislike of maths, science, engineering etc - and thus their under-representation in these fields - is not "endemic to women". Rather, it is "attributable to the situation".

Murphy hopes that it will "inspire greater motivation to attend to such cues when creating and modifying environments so that they may foster perceptions of identity safety rather than threat".

Or in other words, girls would beat boys at maths too if they didn't keep putting up their horrid Einstein posters, periodic tables and other tools of masculine dominance. ®

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