Male Biology Students Underestimate Female Peers, Proving That People Aren't As Objective As Science Aims To Be

People like to think that their observations and perceptions line up with objective reality, and that probably goes doubly for scientists. However, a new study says that male undergraduate biology students consistently underestimate female students and overestimate their male peers, which objectively demonstrates that there's nothing really objective about the way we perceive the world at all. We are all influenced by the underlying preconceptions we've gleaned from society — and getting some science education doesn't really change that.

In the study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, researchers surveyed 1,700 students across three biology courses about their fellow students. Guess what they found? Yup: Male students consistently rated their fellow men higher than they rate women. And interestingly, it doesn't seem to be a simple matter of people in general being biased towards their own gender.

When ranking classmates, women overall tended to slightly overestimate female students by the equivalent of only 0.04 GPA points, a number so small that it's conceivably within a margin of error. Male students, however, tended to give their fellow men the benefit of the doubt to the tune of about 0.76 GPA points. In other words, without already knowing anyone's GPA, female students would tend to rank a female student with a GPA of 3.00 as equal with a male student whose GPA is 3.04; for male students, however, a woman needs to have a GPA of about 3.76 before they'll see her as equal to a male student with a 3.00. So men's gender bias is about 19 times greater than women's gender bias, at least in this study.

"This indicates that males hold a bias against their female peers’ competence in biology," the authors of the study write. They go on to add that this is most likely a result of implicit bias:

Across many cultures, STEM is associated with males and not females. Interestingly, male STEM majors in the U.S. hold the strongest associations between maleness and science, while female STEM majors show some of the weakest implicit biases between gender and science. These differences in the gender-STEM stereotypes held may explain why male undergraduate STEM majors nominate more males, but females do not demonstrate this bias.

And it seems that this implicit bias is not dismantled by being confronted by actual, competent, female STEM students. The authors observe that evidence of gender bias was actually stronger among male students at the end of each course than at the beginning of the course, which makes an unfortunate amount of sense. Assuming that women aren't as good at STEM subjects leads male students to not recognize their female peers' ability in STEM fields, which in turn reinforces the (false) idea that women aren't as good at STEM.

It's what your science class might call a positive feedback loop. Or what those of us who are fond of social analysis like to refer to as a vicious cycle.

It's how you can have things like female scientists being told to find a male co-author to legitimize their research, or the #DistractinglySexy saga, or the debacle that was #HackTheHairdryer — and yet at the same time, also have the majority of men in STEM say that there isn't a gender bias problem in their fields. Because people's underlying assumptions aren't just causing the problem; they're also making the problem invisible.

So how do you break this cycle? Well, teaching people to be aware that their perceptions are in fact colored by the messages they've absorbed from our sexist, patriarchal society might be a good start.

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