Understanding and Reducing the Gender Gap in Math and Science: Cognitive, Social, and Neural Mechanisms in Identity Threat

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This study examines how one important social-psychological factor, stereotype threat (a fear that an individual may have about confirming a negative stereotype associated with the group he/she belongs to), contributes to the gender achievement gap in math and science (especially physics). In particular, the study tests the extent to which reduction in working memory due to stereotype threat mediates the performance and learning decrement that women as a group demonstrate under evaluative situations. In addition, the proposed study examines how a brief writing-based intervention, called values affirmation, reduces the gender gap observed in well-controlled laboratory settings and also in actual college-level classrooms.


University of Colorado at Boulder

Research Design: 

This project will generate evidence that is associative/correlational [quasi-experimental] and causal [experimental and quasi-experimental]. Original data will be collected from college students, focusing on students taking an introductory physics class or on only female students, using school records, survey research [self-completion questionnaires], and performance on cognitive tasks. A values affirmation intervention in which subjects write about their most important values is being evaluated against a control condition in which subjects write about some values that may be important to some other people (but not to them).

In lab studies, we examine students' math or physics performance on computerized tasks, their performance on working memory tasks, and their electrophysiological and/or physiological responses. In physics classroom studies (something we added to our list of studies), we examine students' exam performance and scores on a standardized test of conceptual mastery in physics. The data analysis will focus mostly on multiple regressions including various continuous variables and their interaction terms. ANOVAs or ANCOVAs may also be conducted.


In the Spring 2010 semester, we conducted a double-blind randomized study in a large introductory physics class for STEM majors to test the effectiveness of the values affirmation intervention in reducing the gender achievement gap. The results of the study indicated that values affirmation writing exercises, administered twice at the beginning of the semester, substantially reduced the performance differences between men and women on in-class exams and an end-of-semester test of conceptual mastery in an introductory physics course. Values affirmation reduced the male-female performance and learning difference substantially and elevated women's modal grades from the C to B range. Benefits were strongest for women who tended to endorse the stereotype that men do better than women in physics.

These results are described in the following paper that is scheduled to be published later in the Science magazine (the November 26, 2010, issue).

Publications & Presentations: 

Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L. E., Finkelstein, N. D., Pollock, S. J., Cohen, G. L., & Ito, T. A. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation. Science (the November 26, 2010, issue).