Despite significant progress, women are still thought to lack the qualities needed to be successful scientists, according to Wellesley College researcher Linda Carli. Her study suggests this contributes to discrimination and prejudice against women in those fields.

Carli, an authority on gender discrimination and the challenges faced by professional women, compared how men, women, and scientists are perceived by both genders. Previously, while much research looked at gender stereotypes, no study looked at the overlap of gender stereotypes with stereotypes about scientists.

“Common cultural stereotypes about women, men, and scientists lead people to see women as incompatible with science,” said Carli. “Men are especially prone to this bias, but everyone shares it. This may result in prejudice (a dislike of female scientists compared with men) and discrimination against them.”

The study used students at an all women’s college to gauge the effect this environment might have on stereotypes. This resulted in a surprising finding. The women who attended a single-sex college saw a meaningful similarity between women and scientists.

Those at coed institutions saw very little and men saw nine at all.

Carli said “it may be that women attending women’s colleges have greater exposure to female scientists, and this may shift their stereotypes about successful scientists to be more like women.”

She notes that while we have good examples of women leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, people have little exposure to prominent female scientists.

A closer look at Carli’s research shows that scientists are perceived as more “agentic” (e.g. risk-taking and competitive), and that these characteristics have the greatest overlap with how men are also perceived. Women are thought to be more “communal,” associated with qualities like helpfulness and kindness. She writes in the paper, “[T]he overall image of successful scientists appears to be one of exaggerated masculinity, but with fewer of the more negative qualities associated with masculinity.”

Two different studies

Her research was comprised of two different studies. In the first, participants were given a set of descriptive terms and asked to use them to describe the characteristics of a randomly assigned group (‘adult man’, or ‘adult woman’, or ‘successful scientist’) and to place each term on a five-point scale, with one representing “not characteristic.” The aim was to examine the overlap of stereotypes about women and men and to see if the gender of the participant had an effect on how they viewed these groups.

The second study looked at particular fields in science (e.g. biology) and examined if the number of women actually working in that discipline had an effect on how women were perceived. Like the first study, these participants were asked to describe the characteristics of a randomly assigned group; instead of ‘successful scientist’, the category was, for example, ‘successful biologist’.

While generally women also perceive men and scientists to share more similarities than they feel their own gender shares with scientists, Carli’s study did find that women were “more inclined to attribute to their own gender a somewhat greater degree of agency, and to perceive a somewhat greater similarity of women to successful scientist [than men did].”

She also found that the greater number of women working in a particular field, the greater a perceived similarity between women and scientists existed. However, the number of men in a particular field does not change perceived similarities. She wrote, “Given that people discriminate against women even in gender-neutral fields…, it may be that women have to predominate in a field before people perceive them as having the same role congruity [similarity between their gender and their field’s perceived characteristics] as men.”

Carli argues the implications of her study are clear. As she wrote in the paper, “These data suggest that the challenges women face as potential scientists may go beyond the perception that science is a poor match with women’s communal goals or that more scientists are men [and] not women.” Her findings are also a call to action. We must be “more aware of these potential biases and attempt to compensate for them in evaluating women and girls in STEM,” she argues in the article.