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10 July 2020

Gender-bias in science: Men rated as better students despite women outperforming them

A Colorado State University study found that even at undergrad level students undervalue women students' abilities - despite high numbers and scoring better grades.

  • While the number of female students in science degrees have increased, they still face gender bias.
  • Male undergrad students are rated as high achievers, while grades show women outperforming them.
  • Without addressing the biased culture apparent at the lowest level of academia, women will remain disinterested in pursuing STEM fields. 

Gender-bias is prevalent in many sectors of society across the world - especially in the field of science.

Many believe the key to diversity in this male-dominated field is to increase the ratio of women, but a study from Colorado State University published in PLOS ONE says numbers mean nothing when it comes to gender bias. 

Men seen as better students despite women getting higher grades

They asked 935 science students to answer questions about their classmates - who are they more likely to study with, ask for help, seems to be the most knowledgeable and is the best student in the class. These results they compared with the actual grades of the classes to see if perception matches up with reality. 

While women undergraduate students are outnumbering and outperforming men, their peers still rate their male classmates as better students in STEM subjects. 

While half of the women respondents mostly rated their peers of their own gender high, only a third of male students saw women at the top of their class. This despite the fact women far outperformed in terms of grades than men and there were more than them statistically. 

Interestingly, while physical sciences has a problem recruiting women to pursue STEM fields, far more women opt to pursue life sciences, where the study found women to be on more equal footing to their male peers. 

However, if there was no gender-bias women should have statistically ranked higher in terms of numbers and grades.

READ: Covid-19 science: Who’s behind the research? A shockingly low number of women, a study finds

Need to value women's achievements

There's also studies that showed how women did not perform as well in group projects, compared to working on their own or with mostly other women. They tended to not get credit for their work or their ideas were more readily dismissed. 

On the other hand, these group projects had no impact of male students' performances. 

The researchers posit that this undervaluing of women's talents at an undergraduate level could be part of the reason why they don't pursue STEM subjects as avidly as men. Also, revealing this gender-bias could fuel this disinterest in women, whereas it has no impact on men pursuing these careers. 

There's also this popular notion that boys are academically lazy and girls just work harder, but this creates an untrue perception that men can rely on their innate talents while women have to work harder to overcome their inadequacies.

"Yet, importantly, gender bias still exists among women themselves and in disciplines in which women are equally represented," adds the researchers. 

ALSO READ: Lockdowns and research: what we lost and what we stand to gain

The study however does not address the experience of non-white women - mainly because there wasn't enough representation in the data - who have the double burden of racist biases in academia. 

And this gender-bias continues well into senior positions and research - an earlier study found that women account for just one-third of all authors who published papers related to Covid-19 since the start of the outbreak in January 2020. The ratio was even less when it came to lead authorship of studies. 

Thus while science may look more diverse with more women studying towards these fields, if the gender-biased culture ingrained at an undergraduate level isn't addressed and women aren't more publicly praised for their successes, gender equality will ring hollow in academia and research. 

READ: Stereotypes about girls and maths don't add up, and the research proves it


 
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