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Mostly-male book images may reduce girls’ science scores

April 23, 2010
Special to World Science  

Part of the rea­son boys tend to out­score girls in sci­ence clas­ses may be that most text­books show pre­dom­i­nantly male sci­en­tists’ im­ages, a small ex­plor­a­to­ry study has found.

The stu­dy, on 81 young high-school stu­dents, saw the “gen­der gap” ap­par­ently re­versed when youths were tested based on a text con­tain­ing only female sci­ent­ist im­ages, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. The gap re­turned in its usu­al form when ma­le-only im­ages were used—and van­ished when the pho­tos showed equal num­bers of men and wom­en sci­en­tists, re­search­ers said.

Part of the rea­son boys tend to out­score girls in sci­ence clas­ses may be that most text­books show pre­dom­i­nantly male sci­en­tists’ im­ages, a small ex­plor­a­to­ry study has found. (Image courtesy Vir­gi­nia Dept. of Ed.)


The in­ves­ti­ga­tors cau­tioned, based on the small sam­ple size and oth­er fac­tors, that it’s un­real­is­tic to ex­pect it would be so easy to erase the gen­der gap in real life.

None­the­less, the find­ings hint that “pro­vid­ing stu­dents with di­verse role mod­els with­in text­book im­ages” may be an im­por­tant step, the re­search­ers wrote in re­port­ing their re­sults. The stu­dy, by Jes­si­ca J. Good of Rut­gers Uni­vers­ity in New Jer­sey and col­leagues, is pub­lished in the March-Ap­ril is­sue of the Jour­nal of So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

Oth­er re­search­ers have pro­posed that so­ci­e­ty can wipe out the pe­r­for­mance gap—which has al­ready shrunk­en in re­cent years—by mak­ing stronger ef­forts to give both sexes si­m­i­lar re­sources and op­por­tun­i­ties. A 2004 re­port by the U.S. Cen­ter for Educa­t­ion Sta­tis­tics not­ed that the pre­vi­ous year, sci­ence scores for eighth-grade boys ex­ceeded those for eighth-grade girls in 28 out of 34 coun­tries sur­veyed.

In the study on text­book im­ages, ninth- and tenth-grade stu­dents, 29 male and 52 fema­le, were asked to read a three-page chem­is­try text with one pho­to per page. Stu­dents were ran­domly as­signed one of three ver­sions of the read­ing: one whose pic­tures showed all male sci­en­tists, anoth­er with only female sci­en­tists and one with equal num­bers of sci­en­tists of both sexes. The text it­self was the same in all cases.

The stu­dents, who had no pri­or for­mal chem­is­try train­ing, were next di­rect­ed to take a short test on the read­ing.

Girls did sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter when us­ing the text with wom­en-only im­ages, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­ported. Boys did bet­ter with the men-only im­ages, though the dif­fer­ence here did­n’t reach a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant lev­el. Over­all, av­er­age scores were high­er for girls than boys among all stu­dents who got the wom­en-only ver­sion.

The com­mon pre­dom­i­nance of ma­le-sci­ent­ist im­ages in text­books is a case of what some read­ers would pe­rceive as “stereo­type threat,” a phe­nom­e­non first de­scribed by re­search­ers at Stan­ford Uni­vers­ity in Cal­i­for­nia in the mid-1990s, ac­cord­ing to Good and col­leagues. 

Ster­e­o­type threat oc­curs when a test-taker is pre­sented with, or freshly re­minded of, a ster­e­o­type that re­flects neg­a­tively on his or her abil­i­ties in the sub­ject mat­ter at hand. Stud­ies have found that ster­e­o­type threats push down the test-taker’s score, in the same di­rec­tion the ster­e­o­type would pre­dict. 

Thus a pre­dom­i­nance of ma­le-sci­ent­ist im­ages in the ma­jor­ity of sci­ence text­books may re­in­force pop­u­lar no­tions that girls are worse at sci­ence, and then lead to re­sults in line with those ideas, said Good and col­leagues.

Ster­e­o­type threats have been found to af­fect mi­nor­i­ties as well as fema­les. And the new find­ings sug­gest ster­e­o­type threat might work both ways—hurt­ing not only those dis­fa­vored by a com­mon ster­e­o­type, but those fa­vored as well. In par­tic­u­lar, al­though the pop­u­lar ster­e­o­type is that boys are the top pe­rformers in sci­ence, Good’s re­sults hinted that boys’ scores, too, might suf­fer if they saw pic­tures that cut against the flat­ter­ing ster­e­o­type.

A sim­ple so­lu­tion that pre­s­ents it­self, though it re­quires more re­search, would be “mixed-gen­der text­book im­ages,” the re­search­ers wrote. These “may rep­re­sent a sim­ple and cost-ef­fec­tive way to rem­e­dy the neg­a­tive ef­fects of stereo­typic text­book im­ages.” 

They cau­tioned that not­with­stand­ing the lat­est re­sults, oth­er stud­ies have found that re­mov­ing ster­e­o­type threats does­n’t com­pletely elim­i­nate pe­r­for­mance gaps among dif­fer­ent groups, though it helps.

How ex­actly ster­e­o­type-threat ef­fects work is un­known, Good and col­leagues said, al­though there is ev­i­dence that they ope­rate largely sub­con­scious­ly. Pos­si­ble rea­sons may in­clude anx­i­e­ty or in­tru­sive thoughts caused by the ster­e­o­type threat, they wrote. Anoth­er ex­plana­t­ion may be that there is a sub­con­scious ten­den­cy to con­form to so­ci­e­tal ex­pecta­t­ions.

“Re­search should in­ves­t­i­gate the in­flu­ence of di­verse role mod­els pre­sented in text­books as a way of im­prov­ing pe­r­for­mance of mul­ti­ple ster­e­o­typed groups, not just wom­en,” the in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­clud­ed. “Although elim­i­nat­ing gen­der bi­as in text­books will most likely not erad­i­cate the gen­der gap in sci­ence in­ter­est and achieve­ment, it will beg­in to chip away at an ev­er crum­bling founda­t­ion.”


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Part of the reason boys tend to outscore girls in science classes may be that most textbooks show predominantly images of male scientists, a small exploratory study has found. The study, on 81 young high-school students, saw the “gender gap” apparently reversed when youths were tested based on a text containing only female scientist images, investigators said. The gap returned in its usual form when male-only images were used—and vanished when the photos showed equal numbers of men and women scientists, researchers said. The investigators cautioned, based on the small sample size and other factors, that it’s unrealistic to expect it would be so easy to erase the gender gap in real life. Nonetheless, the findings hint that “providing students with diverse role models within textbook images” may be an important step, the researchers wrote in reporting their results. The study, by Jessica J. Good of Rutgers University in New Jersey and colleagues, is published in the March-April issue of the Journal of Social Psychology. Other researchers have proposed that society can wipe out the performance gap—which has already shrunken in recent years—by making stronger efforts to give both sexes similar resources and opportunities. A 2004 report by the U.S. Center for Education Statistics noted that the previous year, science scores for eighth-grade boys exceeded those for eighth-grade girls in 28 out of 34 countries surveyed. In the study on textbook images, ninth- and tenth-grade students, 29 male and 52 female, were asked to read three-page chemistry text with one photo per page. Students were randomly assigned one of three versions of the reading: one whose pictures showed all male scientists, another with only female scientists and one with equal numbers of scientists of both sexes. The text itself was the same in all cases. The students, who had no prior formal chemistry training, were next directed to take a short test on the reading. Girls did significantly better when using the text with women-only images, the investigators reported. Boys did better with the men-only images, although the difference here didn’t reach the level of statistical significance. Overall, average scores were higher for girls using women-only version than for boys using the men-only version. The common predominance of male-scientist images in textbooks is a case of what some readers would perceive as “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon first described by researchers at Stanford University in California in the mid-1990s, according to Good and colleagues. Stereotype threat occurs when a test-taker is presented with, or freshly reminded of, a stereotype that reflects negatively on his or her abilities in the subject matter at hand. Studies have found that stereotype threats push down the test-taker’s score, in the same direction the stereotype would predict. Thus a predominance of male-scientist images in the majority of science textbooks may reinforce popular notions that girls are worse at science, and then lead to results in line with those ideas, said Good and colleagues. Stereotype threats have been found to affect minorities as well as females. And the new findings suggest stereotype threat might work both ways—hurting not only those disfavored by a common stereotype, but those favored as well. In particular, although the popular stereotype is that boys are the top performers in science, Good’s results hinted that boys’ scores, too, might suffer if they saw pictures that cut against the flattering stereotype. A simple solution that presents itself, though it requires more research, would be “mixed-gender textbook images,” the researchers wrote. These “may represent a simple and cost-effective way to remedy the negative effects of stereotypic textbook images.” They cautioned that notwithstanding the latest results, other studies have found that removing stereotype threats doesn’t completely eliminate performance gaps among different groups, though it helps. How exactly stereotype-threat effects work is unknown, Good and colleagues said, although there is evidence that they operate largely subconsciously. Possible reasons for the effect may include anxiety or intrusive thoughts caused by the stereotype threat, they wrote. Another explanation may be that there is a subconscious tendency to conform to societal expectations. “Research should investigate the influence of diverse role models presented in textbooks as a way of improving performance of multiple stereotyped groups, not just women,” the investigators concluded. “Although eliminating gender bias in textbooks will most likely not eradicate the gender gap in science interest and achievement, it will begin to chip away at an ever crumbling foundation.”