Men Outperform Women in Science Fields

There is a significant gender gap in science-related careers in the U.S.  Women are consistently underrepresented in these fields. One reason for this is that women are found to make lower grades compared to men at school. Many strategies, including redesigning of coursework in science, have been undertaken to address this issue. A new study found that a short psychological program called ‘“values affirmation”’ before and during the semester might decrease the gender gap in grades significantly.

Although women constituted 47 percent of the North American workforce in 2009, their representation in computer and mathematical occupations was just 25 percent, and in architecture and engineering occupations it was only 14 percent. Apart from the fact that women receive lower grades and poorer scores in these areas, the fear of a negative stereotype of being a scientist often produces a psychological threat and undermines performance. “Values affirmation” is a psychological strategy of documenting personal core values. Affirming core values help people in improving their perceptions of personal integrity and worth, leading to improvement in their performance. This theory was tested on women taking an introductory physics course in college for this current study.


  • A group of 399 students (283 men and 116 women) were recruited and randomly divided into a values affirmation group and a control group.
  • They were given writing assignments twice: once in the first week of the semester and then as an online assignment in the fourth week.
  • The values affirmation group selected the most important values from a list and wrote about why and how these were important to them; whereas the control group selected the least important values for them from the same list and wrote about how these were important to them.
  • Subsequently, the scores of all the participants on three midterms and one final examination were compared in both groups and between men and women. In addition, scores for an objective national test of conceptual physics were also obtained and compared.


  • In the control group, men continued to outperform women; the average overall score in the examinations was around 70 percent for men and it was 65 percent for women.
  • In the values affirmation group, the gap between the average scores of women and men decreased substantially and women scored almost 75 percent on average.
  • Values affirmation was especially effectual in improving women’s grades from average (C), to above average (B). There was no such difference in grade distribution for men.
  • Values affirmation was particularly advantageous to women who had earlier believed in gender stereotypes and thought that as a group they were poor in physics.

Future steps

Many instructional strategies, like mentorship, group discussions to solve problems and redesigning course content are employed in science classrooms to reduce the gender gap in test performance between women and men. This study shows that the psychological program of values affirmation helps women improve their grades. There is a need to study if instructional and psychological strategies, when combined together, give better results.

Compared to men, women underperform in science subjects. It is a stereotype that women do not conceptualise science well. Fear of falling into this stereotype might be one reason for women scoring less than males. When one’s core values are affirmed, coping improves. This helps in overcoming challenges and improving performance. The current study endorsed this finding in women taking an introductory physics class; and it could be extended to other branches of science that are traditionally seen as the domain of men. The study authors conclude, “Reducing the gender gap…could not only benefit women’s performance in the short term but also encourage them to choose and persist in a scientific major and career path in [science-related] disciplines.”

For More Information:

Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation
Publication Journal: Science, November 2010
By Akira Miyake; Lauren E. Kost-Smith; Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Department of Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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