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Science and prejudice

How to break the vicious circle of gender stereotypes in scientific research

Stereotypes are learned early in life: several studies have observed ingroup biases by age 3 or 4 and  the development of racial and gender stereotyping soon after.

In many cases the immediate effects of stereotype activation fade after a few minutes, but  regardless of their duration, each activation reinforces stereotypic thinking in the long run.  Additionally, evidence suggests that once a stereotype is activated, it can be reactivated by  something as simple as a disagreement with someone in the stereotyped group, and if brought to  mind frequently enough, can become chronically accessible. Thus, even though media-based stereotypes may seem harmless when  considered individually, their cumulative effect over time can be substantial. Once stereotypes are learned  -- whether from the media, family members, direct  experience, or elsewhere -- they sometimes take on a life of their own and become "selfperpetuating stereotypes".

Gender stereotypes does not stem from social roles, but they are reinforced by them in a kind of vicious circle.

 Old negative stereotypes in sciences, according  to E. Fox Keller:

  1. Science is neutral: science deals with things (objectivity) and women with persons ( subjectivity).
  2. Women identity bound to the natural world; male identity founded on the separation and on Nature control.
  3. Male knowledge is more scientific, analytical and objective; female knowledge is based on maternal kind intuition.
  4. Science is rationality completely divided from feelings: science is hard an rigorous while women are irrational and emotional.
  5. Science is search of power, while women search for harmony.

The only positive stereotypes in science were masculine and based on identification of women scientists  with masculine role models. It is prooved that for male and female the ideal self was relativelv more masculine than the actual self. It appears, therefore, that there is a general tendency for both men and women to wish to be more "masculine" than they are.

Assessment of changes in  gender stereotypes in sciences. Stereotypes arise when self-integration is threatened. They are thereof part of our way of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world. This is not to say that they are good, only that they are necessary in the mind developing.

Educational disparities almost disappeared in the western countries and also some cultural and social boundaries. In an age of information overload, "nutshell" stereotypes encapsulate information compactly and efficiently and thus possess an undeniable survival value. Admittedly, many stereotypes are self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecies.

If an individual or group identity  is threatened when a stereotyped group member violates the group stereotype, they often continue to maintain the stereotype by splitting it into  subtypes .  For example, when encountering a “woman clever in mathematics”  people with  gender stereotypes may distinguish that  woman from other women “sentimental,  irrational and fragile” by creating a subtype for " skilfull and capable women “.  As a result of subtyping, stereotypes become impervious to  disconfirming evidence.


Are thus  the old gender stereotypes in science dismissed?

Traditional displays of prejudice  have not disappeared, but rather contemporary forms of prejudice are often difficult to detect  and may even be unknown to the prejudice holders.

To detect stereotypes  there are different means: check-list, open ended approach or indirect measures (priming).

Assessment of the new emerging positive typologies:

But the representation of women in science is changed in reality.

Factor that are contributing to the change/dismission    :

  • Women presence and success in science (recent  statistical data);
  • New characteristics needed by post modern science. Creating a Team. The role of newly promoted women in integrating the members of the old team is generally noticeble, effective and beneficial. Ethical responsibility not only scientific excellence, but high level of concern showed by women in  research activities, also with respect to the societal implication;
  • Other qualities needed beside the scientific expertise. Giving Student Researchers the Freedom They Need: Other examples show that women know better than men how to preserve the freedom of student researchers. The result is that students are more mature than when they are always led by the hand in their research.  Keeping Egos in Check.  It may be appropriate to cite Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (Nobel prize in Physics 1991): "Lastly, the Latin races have this obsession with intelligence….. They want to be seen as clever and this is not very good…... Women are less prone to want to shine in their presentations, to claim to know everything, and that lends them weight. On the other hand, as well as a sound grasp of things, they have the quality of a human touch and a sense of reality: things that every team needs if it is to succeed".

Changing stereotypes: need to reinforce positive typologies, or recategorization without prejudices.

We cannot function in the world without some kind of stereoypes, they buffer us against our most urgent fears by extending them, making it possible for us to act as though their source were beyond our control. They are categorisations used to build “common sense” or “wisdom”, but they are beyond, because frequently we are not  even aware that we are using them, making it impossible to correct for them.

The most common approach to changing stereotypes is to provide individuals with the informations that their stereotypes are false.

Consequently, one way of generating effects to transform the stereotypes would be simply by taking the perspective of outgroup members and "looking at the world through their eyes", ingroup bias and stereotype accessibility can be significantly reduced ; even implicit stereotypes can be modified. The contact hypothesis propose, for example,   that contact between groups that work together will increase positive relations. But the contact must be positive! 

Change can take place if there is motivation, or there is some advantage in changing it,  or when we are not  threatened by the change of  the stereotype. This mean that you have to deal with conflicts between men and women in the organizations.

Indirect change my be achieved through learning  affermative actions, for example,

creating new representations of women in science.

New typologies should be free of trivial generalisation or media simplification and

should not be confounded with role models as personification of stereotypes.

The positive stereotype of women as nurturing can be used, for example, as a justification to limit women to careers of education, childcare and nursing.

Women are fighting to change their gender role,  but we can find only few ways out :

-       to adopt male traits (androgyny). However, woman’s liberation would induce us to continue to idealize male values even if it overturned social roles.  Minimizing gender distinctions, looks like a loss for women, as it minimizes or undervalues their essential mothering capacity

-       to combine and integrate male and female traits and make men adopt female traits and roles. This would be an invincible solution for women, but  the reason and benefits inducing men to relinquish supremacy and power are not clear. Above all, the fact that this would require a real and proper clash between the sexes is overlooked. It must be kept in mind that no researches on men have focused  on  the reduction of automatic stereotypes over the years. 

-       to put individual skills above gender in order to break out of the binary representations of men and women. This position seems more akin to the ideas of young researchers, backing gender aspects with respect to individual capacities.


In attachment the original paper