Can you accomplish more with a female instructor?

I don’t get what the bit about Obama and Desperate Housewives at the start of this article from Slate entitled “Pscyh-out sexism” is trying to say, but the research summarized later sounds interesting. Here’s a quote about the first study:

The psychologists asked female students studying biology, chemistry, and engineering to take a very tough math test. All the students were greeted by a senior math major who wore a T-shirt displaying Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. For some volunteers, the math major was male. For others, the math major was female. This tiny tweak made a difference: Women attempted more questions on the tough math test when they were greeted by a female math major rather than a male math major. On psychological tests that measured their unconscious attitudes toward math, the female students showed a stronger self-identification with math when the math major who had greeted them was female. When they were greeted by the male math major, women had significantly higher negative attitudes toward math.

In the next study, they found that university-level women asked fewer questions in class and in office hours after a term with a male prof than they did after a term with a female one. And in the final study, they found that women had more confidence with a female teacher… even if tests showed that they were outperforming their male colleagues.

The latter two studies could be for reasons other than the gender of the teacher: previous studies have shown that although fewer women reach the level of prof, those who do tend to be exceptional so it might be their innate talents and not as much their gender that allows them to reach their students better. But still, it’s an interesting selection of research, and really speaks to why outreach from women’s groups like my local CU-WISE can be especially valuable! We do a variety of events for younger women including helping at summer camps, science fairs, and visiting schools.

So next time you wonder if it’s worth doing an outreach event, remember that your smiling face may be just what another young woman needs to get her to try that little bit harder!

This was originally written for the CU-WISE blog and has been altered slightly for GF.

3 thoughts on “Can you accomplish more with a female instructor?

  1. John

    Some research (e.g. Thomas Dee of Swarthmore College) suggests that boys learn better when taught by men than by women, so this may be part of a more general effect, perhaps as much about role models more as about teaching ability or styles; or, from the description in the original post here, perhaps it’s about perceived approachability, or about identifying with the teacher / professor.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are similar effects with ethnicity, too.

  2. Tony Mechelynck

    Hm… This kind of study results could be used as an argument to go back to single-sex high schools, with girls-only schools taught by women and boys-only schools taught by men. OTOH, I know at least one math-like endeavour (chess) where remaining among girls prevented those who did (most of them) to reach world-class top level.

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