Brains are in the eye of the be­holder

Male stu­dents as­sume male class­mates are smarter than fe­males with same mark: re­port


An­thro­pol­o­gist Dan Grun­span was study­ing the habits of un­der­grad­u­ates when he no­ticed a per­sis­tent trend: Male stu­dents as­sumed their male class­mates knew more about course ma­te­rial than fe­male stu­dents, even if the young women earned bet­ter grades.

“The pat­tern just screamed at me,” he said.

So, Grun­span and his col­leagues at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton and else­where de­cided to quan­tify the de­gree of this gender bias in the class­room.

Af­ter sur­vey­ing roughly 1,700 stu­dents across three bi­ol­ogy cour­ses, they found young men con­sis­tently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just as savvy fe­male class­mates.

Men over­ranked their peers by three-quar­ters of a GPA point, ac­cord­ing to the study, pub­lished this month in the jour­nal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A’s, they’d re­ceive equal ap­plause from fe­male stu­dents, but Susie would reg­is­ter as a B stu­dent in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.

“Some­thing un­der the con­scious is go­ing on,” Grun­span said. “For 18 years, these (young men) have been so­cial­ized to have this bias.”

Be­ing male, he added, “is some kind of boost.” At least in the eyes of other men.

The sur­veys asked each stu­dent to “nom­i­nate” their most knowl­edge­able class­mates at three points dur­ing the school year. Who best knew the sub­ject? Who were the high achiev­ers?

To il­lus­trate the re­sult­ing peer-per­cep­tion gap, re­searchers com­pared the im­por­tance stu­dent grades had on win­ning a nom­i­na­tion to the weight of the gender bias. The typ­i­cal stu­dent re­ceived 1.2 nom­i­na­tions, with men av­er­ag­ing 1.3 and women av­er­ag­ing 1.1.

Fe­male stu­dents gave other fe­male stu­dents a recog­ni­tion “boost” equiv­a­lent to a GPA bump of 0.04, too tiny to in­di­cate any gender pref­er­ence, Grun­span said. Male stu- dents, how­ever, awarded fel­low male stu­dents a recog­ni­tion boost equiv­a­lent to a GPA in­crease of 0.76.

“On this scale,” the re­port as­serted, “the male nom­i­na­tors’ gender bias is 19 times the size of the fe­male nom­i­na­tors.’ ”

Class­room “celebri­ties,” de­fined in the study as the stu­dents with the most class­mate recog­ni­tion, were over­whelm­ingly male. Men dom­i­nated the top three slots in all three classes, while women peaked at No. 4.

In one class, the most renowned man, so to speak, gar­nered 52 nom­i­na­tions, while the most renowned wo­man snagged nine.

The re­searchers also sur­veyed the in­struc­tors on which stu­dents spoke up most in the lec­ture halls, which could ac­com­mo­date up to 700 stu­dents. In­creased male vis­i­bil­ity, they fig­ured, could lead to in­creased male recog­ni­tion.

Men did raise their hands more of­ten, at least in the in­struc­tor’s mem­ory. But af­ter con­trol­ling for vari­a­tions in grades and par­tic­i­pa­tion, male stu­dents still re­ceived more recog­ni­tion from other men than their fe­male peers did. The phe­nom­e­non leads to more than a know­ing fe­male eye roll, the re­port’s au­thors wrote. Col­lege women in science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math pro­grams (STEM pro­grams) ditch their ma­jors ear­lier and more of­ten than male stu­dents. That’s one rea­son STEM fields re­main dom­i­nated by males.

Grun­span said re­in­force­ment from fac­ulty mem­bers and peers is enor­mously im­por­tant to a young per­son’s ed­u­ca­tion and ca­reer devel­op­ment. A sim­ple “You can do this,” for both men and women, could mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween push­ing through ad­ver­sity or giv­ing up.

If a fe­male stu­dent’s tal­ent is ig­nored or un­no­ticed in other classes, “it adds up,” Grun­span said. “What does that mean for the en­tire col­le­giate ex­pe­ri­ence for women in STEM?”

The study, he said, should be a warn­ing. To­day’s stu­dents will grow up. They will make hir­ing and pro­mo­tion de­ci­sions. They will shape pol­icy.

Wrote the re­searchers: “Our work im­plies that the chilly en­vi­ron­ment for women may not be go­ing away any time soon.”

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