Even at Fictitious “Male” Tasks, Women Assess Themselves Lower

August 30, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW is teaming up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, to put together an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

During this month’s AAUW week, I am going to write a little more about Stanford University sociologist Shelley Correll’s research on self-assessment. Last month, I described how Correll found that among girls and boys with similar past mathematical achievement, girls assess their math abilities lower than boys do. In a follow-up study, Correll took her theory that boys assess their abilities higher and express higher aspirations to pursue careers in areas considered to be male domains into the lab and tested it in an experimental setting.

Correll designed an experiment around a fictitious skill called “contrast sensitivity ability.” In this experiment, participants were given evidence that contrast sensitivity ability (the ability to detect proportions of how much black and white appeared on a screen) was either an ability that men were more likely to have (male advantage or “MA” condition) or an ability that showed no gender difference (gender dissociated or “GD” condition).

Participants completed two 20-item rounds of a computer-administered contrast sensitivity test in which subjects had five seconds to judge which color (black or white) predominated in each of a series of rectangles. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the amount of white and black was either exactly equal or very close to equal in each rectangle, so the test had no right or wrong answers. Nonetheless, all subjects were told that they had correctly answered 13 of the 20 items during round one and 12 of 20 in round two. Participants were then asked to assess their performance and indicate their interest in pursuing a career requiring contrast sensitivity ability.

In the MA group, men assessed their contrast sensitivity ability and their interest in pursuing careers requiring this ability higher than women did, even though all participants received identical scores on the tests. In the GD group, where the fictitious skill was described as equally likely to be held by women and men, no gender differences appeared in assessments of ability or interest in using the skill in the future.

What are your thoughts on this study? What do you see as the implications for science and engineering?

Avatar By:   |   August 30, 2011

1 Comment

  1. Avatar Marian Seagren Hall says:

    Great test! Important results. Let’s share it with our girls.

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