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How a sexist environment affects women in engineering

June 3, 2009

Women in traditionally male-dominated fields like math and engineering face the extra burden that their performance, beyond reflecting on them individually, might be taken as broader confirmation of stereotypes if they perform poorly. A newly published series of experiments by Christine Logel and colleagues tested the effects of such stereotype threat among engineering students.

Standardized observations showed that male engineering students who had previously expressed subtle sexist attitudes on a pretest were more likely, when talking with a female engineering student about work issues, to adopt a domineering posture and to display signs of sexual interest (such as noticeably looking at the woman’s body).

In the next 2 experiments, female engineering students were randomly assigned in one experiment to interact with males who had endorsed different levels of subtle sexism, and in a second experiment with an actor who randomly either displayed or did not display the domineering/sexual nonverbal behaviors. Women performed worse on an engineering test after interacting with the randomly-assigned sexist males (or males simulating sexists’ nonverbal behavior).

In another experiment, women’s poorer performance was shown to be limited to stereotype-related tests, not a broad cognitive deficit. In a final experiment, interacting with a domineering/sexually interested male caused women to have temporarily elevated concern about negative stereotypes, which they subsequent attempted to suppress (thought suppression being a well-known resource hog).

The results further support the idea that even subtle sexism can be toxic in workplace environments where women are traditionally targets of discrimination.

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