Are science lecture classes sexist?

Researchers find women suffer bigger "grade penalties" than men in large science lecture classes

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Education by the Numbers

Both men and women complain that it’s harder to get A’s in college science and math classes than in, say, sociology and history. And they’re right. But it turns out that women are suffering a much larger “grade penalty” in the sciences than men are.

One new study at the University of Michigan found that female students there typically earned half a letter grade lower in large, introductory math or science classes than in their other classes at the university. Men, by contrast, received a grade that was a third of a letter grade lower. Both sexes are doing worse in Chemistry 101, for example, than they do in other classes, but the female “grade penalties” are a fifth of a letter grade worse than those of their male counterparts. That could easily be the difference between a B-minus and a C-plus.

“Female students come to this class and they get a grade that’s lower than what they’re used to getting,” said Timothy McKay, a Michigan professor and the lead author of the still-unpublished draft paper. “And they might ascribe that to not being as good at this as they are at other things.”

Those feelings can compound and prompt women to drop out of science.

It doesn’t help that the people around them are mostly men, and getting relatively better grades — as the women might well notice. In physics, for example, classes are typically 75 percent male and 25 percent female.

McKay was concerned that perhaps the women taking science classes at Michigan weren’t as well prepared. So he compared men and women who otherwise had similar grades in all their other classes, even similar ACT scores and high school grade-point averages. He studied the transcripts and college applications of tens of thousands of students over seven years, from 2008 to 2015. He found that women were almost always suffering a greater grade penalty than men in large math and science lecture classes. Even the highest performing women, with A averages, tended to suffer a grade penalty — a small one, but one that was still larger than that of their male counterparts.

“As an instructor of one of these classes, I don’t like that the fact that it might be a feature of these classes,” said McKay, who has taught introductory physics at Michigan for more than 20 years. “But I’m afraid that it is.”

It’s not unique to Michigan. Another working paper, presented at a seminar last month, in April 2016, replicated McKay’s quantitative analysis of student records and found the exact same gender performance differences in biology, chemistry and physics classes at four other Big Ten universities.

Women do better in labs

Confirming that there is something about science lecture classes that puts many women at a disadvantage, McKay found that female students weren’t suffering a grade penalty in the laboratory sections of these same science classes. In fact, women earn lab grades that are a hair better than those of their male peers.

These lab classes were covering the same science subject matter. Students also had to use mathematics. McKay says the main difference is that in labs, students can take their time in experiments, and polish up their reports until they’re happy with them — more like the actual work of scientists in the real world. But in the large lecture classes, students are solely evaluated on timed examinations, usually a midterm or two and a final exam.

Why would women do worse on objective, timed tests? The calculations are mechanical. The questions are sometimes multiple choice.

McKay speculates that something called “stereotype threat” is at play, whereby women may not perform at their best when they feel that they are in an environment where women don’t succeed. Timed tests add an element of stress, which can trigger this sort of self-doubting, counterproductive anxiety.

“You don’t fall apart. But you feel like you’re working against the tide,” said McKay. “You do a little worse, 10 percent worse, enough to get a couple questions wrong on a test, enough to get a half a letter grade lower.”

(Stereotype threat is a theory developed by Claude Steele, a social psychologist at  Stanford University. For more see here. One of his early papers on the topic studied women in mathematics classes at the University of Michigan in the 1990s.)

McKay is now conducting experiments to see if he can level the playing field. In some lecture classes, he is replacing a few high-stakes exams with biweekly in-class quizzes. The hope is that more frequent evaluation will lower stress levels and diminish self-doubt. He is also working with psychologists to program an online coaching system to send reassuring messages to female students, designed to reduce anxiety.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay, a contributing editor, writes a weekly column, Education By The Numbers, about education data and research. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive