Toys, models and conditioning push boys, more than girls, to have self confidence, build things and work in team.
In 1993, Sheryl Sorby and Beverly Gimmestad Baartmans administered the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) along with a background questionnaire to 535 first-year Michigan Tech engineering students during orientation. Sorby’s analysis of the results of the test and the background questionnaire showed that previous experience in design-related courses such as drafting, mechanical drawing, and art, as well as play as children with construction toys such as Legos, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets, predicted good performance on the PSVT:R.
This shows that spatial skills, in which men are known to perform better on average, is not directly related to gender, but rather to the kind of activities that children are given according to their gender.
Fortunately, this is not fixed. Other experiences show that a short training can eliminate the gender gap.
Sheryl Sorby selected a random sample of 24 students (11 women and 13 men) who failed the PSVT:R test to participate in the pilot offering of the spatial-visualization course. During a 10-week period, these students took a course that included two hours of lecture and a two-hour computer lab each week. Lectures covered topics such as cross sections of solids, sketching multiview drawings of simple objects, and paper folding to illustrate 2-D to 3-D transformations. In the lab, students used solid-modeling computer-aided design (CAD) software to illustrate the principles presented during the lectures.
At the end of the course, students took the PSVT:R again. The results were remarkable. Students’ test scores improved from an average score of 52 percent on the PSVT:R before taking the class to 82 percent after taking it. This is approximately 10 times the improvement that would be expected of someone taking the PSVT:R a second time with no training.
Similar studies conducted by Baenninger & Newcombe (1989) and Vasta et al. (1996), gave the same results.
This is a vicious circle: because there are more men in those fields, the image of a smart engineer or scientist is masculine, therefore, women are less likely to identify themselves to them, have self-confidence and see sciences and technologies as a possible career.
Shelley Correll, a sociologist at Stanford University, found that among students with equivalent past achievement in math, boys assessed their mathematical ability higher than girls did. Controlling for actual ability, the higher students assessed their mathematical ability, the greater the odds were that they would enroll in a high school calculus course and choose a college major in science, math, or engineering.
Correll found that boys were more likely than their equally accomplished female peers to enroll in calculus not because boys were better at math but because they believed that they were better at math.
When mathematical self-assessment levels were controlled, the previous higher enrollment of boys in calculus disappeared and the gender gap in college major choice was reduced (Correll, 2001).
In a follow-up study Correll (2004) verified in a laboratory experiment that when cultural beliefs about male superiority exist in any area, even a fictitious one, girls assess their abilities in that area lower and judge themselves by a higher standard.
Claude Steel, professor of psychology at Stanford University, shows that this belief can also affect performance. He calls this “the stereotype threat“.
We may also wonder how much male narcissism is involved in this state of things?
From my personal experience, often men feel “valued” when women accept their help, and they can be denigrating toward a woman who refuses this help, by accusing her of having a bad temper. This conditioning can make women comply and accept the idea of being more fragile, more stupid, at least in some fields, to avoid conflict and make the man happy about himself. It may also be consistent with a former family conditioning.
Exclusion from informal networks
As a woman programmer, I find often myself working only with men. Often, they develop with each others a friendship and meet outside the office. They joke easily with each others. But, although they do try to sympathize, I’m sometimes excluded.
From conversations with other female developers, I noted that it is a phenomenon that many others have experienced (although not all of them).
I can somehow understand because male colleagues might fear a misunderstanding about their intention (it’s not since “Me too” and alike, it has always been). I share this fear too. I don’t want that one of my colleague believe I’m trying to seduce him. But this has heavy consequences. People prefer to work with those they feel at ease with. Furthermore, developing mutual empathy and trust reduces conflicts.
I blame mainly the hypersexualisation of our society, that makes harder for a woman to develop a simple friendship with a man. We should see each others first of all as independent minds, not concerned with sexuality, so that we can be friends without raising any ambiguity.
Anyhow, the openness of male colleagues really varies from place to place. I’ve observed that it is easier to be integrated in small companies than in big ones, and that it is best, if we can, to avoid to cumulate too many differences, such as – beside gender – age and language.
The companies in which I have felt the most hardly excluded had more than dozen developers, all male, mostly much younger, mostly native of a country in which I was a foreigner (Sweden, the Flemish part of Belgium), all together.
Time and mental charge on domestic duties
Women are traditionally assigned to parental and domestic duties much more than men. Even when a man “helps”, the woman takes in her own mind the daily organization of the housework. This is called a “mental charge”. This takes the time her mind could spend on professional research and problem solving.
For those who can read French, I suggest the funny cartoon by Emma: “Fallait demander”
A clear indicator that the reason for the different proportion of men and women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM fields) is cultural, is the fact that those proportions vary according to the epochs and the countries.
The proportion of women computer programmers was much more important from the fifties to the beginning of the eighties, than now. When computers have been popularized during the eighties, adverts were targeting particularly men and boys, and personal computers were often bought for a father or a son.
More than a third of the computing students are women in universities of India, China, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, Latva, Lithuania, Macedonia, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Australia, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Guyana, Bolivia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran…
In some universities of Thailand, Malaysia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Albania and Guyana, they are more numerous than their male counterpart.
Source: Women in Computing around the World: an Initial Comparison of International Statistics, by Vashti Galpin
The ratio of boys to girls among children identified as mathematically precocious has decreased dramatically in the last 30 years, far faster than it would take a genetic change to travel through the population. Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1.
Also, while in the vast majority of countries more boys than girls scored above the 99th percentile in mathematics on the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, in Iceland and Thailand more girls than boys scored above the 99th percentile (Guiso et al., 2008).
Source: “Why So Few?” by Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett & Andresse St. Rose, 2010
The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which has participation from 68 countries, provides another example of cultural disparities. Here is a table showing the proportion of women members of IAU for each country:
STEM in general