Who's the best student? Men and women reply differently

Gender bias in the classroom is partly to blame for the lack of women in STEM

Male students tend to perceive one another as more knowledgeable than their equally matched female classmates, according to a new study from the University of Washington, Danielle Paquette reports for the Washington Post's "Wonkblog."

Researchers surveyed about 1,700 students in three biology courses to determine how gender played into peer perceptions of competency. They found that male students overestimated one another by three-quarters of a GPA point.

When asked to nominate their most knowledgeable classmates at three times throughout the school year, each student received on average 1.2 nominations, with men averaging 1.3 and women averaging 1.1.

Female students awarded one another a recognition bump equal to a GPA increase of 0.04 points, a figure too small to suggest any gender bias, according to researchers. Men, on the other hand, awarded one another a recognition bump equal to a GPA increase of 0.76 points.

Researchers also identified "celebrities," those who gained the most recognition from classmates. Men took the top spot in all three classes, while women only reached fourth place. In one class, the top male celebrity nabbed 52 nominations, while the top female celebrity had just nine.

Overall, the gender bias of male nominators was 19 times that of female nominators, according to the report.

Sweat the small stuff: Tweaking the classroom environment can affect student success

"Something under the conscious is going on," says lead author Dan Grunspan. "For 18 years, these [young men] have been socialized to have this bias."       

Alarming implications

While gender bias in the classroom may come as no surprise to many women, the greater implications for such treatment down the road are worrisome, say the report's authors. Women in STEM programs currently leave their majors earlier and more often than their male counterparts, which is one reason for the overrepresentation of men in the field.  

Grunspan says educators and peers must provide reinforcement to both men and women in the classroom. If women are left out, he asks, "What does that mean for the entire collegiate experience for women in STEM?"         

Gender bias could be cropping up in an unexpected place: The thermostat.

Grunspan suggests the study should serve as a warning for the future of hiring and promotion decisions and policymaking.

The researchers note, "Our work implies that the chilly environment for women may not be going away any time soon" (Paquette, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 2/16). 

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