Women still lag behind men in fields of science, technology, engineering and math — and part of the problem may be psychological. New research shows college-aged women who affirmed their identities through a writing exercise performed much better than others on physics exams, narrowing the gender gap.

The stereotype that men are better than women at math and science could put pressure on women who may worry the stereotype applies to them, according to the researchers. That psychological threat could lead to poorer outcomes for these women.

The brief writing exercise likely buffered against the threat, the researchers found.

During the 15-minute writing exercise, called a values affirmation intervention, some students wrote about their most important personal values, like friends and family. This exercise, performed twice over the months-long course, appeared to boost female, but not male, students' performances on their in-class multiple-choice exams and on a national, standardized test of conceptual mastery of physics, the researchers wrote in the Nov. 26 issue of the journal Science.

Historically, men have substantially outperformed women on exams in this course as well as on the standardized test.

"The introductory course we investigated in this study is intended for students planning to be science majors," said study researcher Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado at Boulder. "So, the women in that course probably did well in high school science courses, are interested in science and are highly motivated to do well. The fact that we found a large reduction in the gender gap for affirmed women tells you that some psychological processes are affecting women's performance on exams and how powerful those influences are."

From 399 male and female students, the researchers asked a randomly selected group to write about personally important values selected from a list (including "relationships with friends and family," "learning" and "gaining knowledge") during the first and fourth weeks of class. Other students were placed into a control group and asked to write about their least important values and to explain why they might be important to other people.

At the end of the 15-week course, the gap between male and female academic performance had narrowed for the women who had taken part in the values affirmation exercise. At the end of the course, more women in the control group, about 56 percent, had earned a C, with only 23 percent earning a B. But among the women who performed the affirmation exercise, the Bs increased to 37 percent and the Cs decreased to 41 percent. Meanwhile, the affirmation exercise appeared to make no difference for male students' grades.

A survey also given to the female students indicated that the resulting academic improvement was most pronounced in women who believed men did better at physics. In the control group, the more strongly women believed this stereotype, the lower their scores. This negative correlation wasn't found among those who performed the affirmation exercise.

"These results tell us that writing self-affirming essays improved the affirmed women's exam performances by alleviating their anxiety related to being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science," Miyake said.

He cautioned, however, that the affirmation exercise is not a magical silver bullet, because many factors contribute to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This article was reprinted with permission from LiveScience.

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