April 9, 2019

Values Affirmation: Reducing the Gender Gap in STEM Disciplines

by Samantha McBryde, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center

Policy makers and the educational community have debated for decades ways to address the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In high school, male and female students enroll in advanced science courses at about the same rates. Indeed, females are slightly more likely to enroll in some STEM courses than males.1 However, the rates of women taking science and engineering courses drop in college and significant disparities begin to emerge in the workplace, especially for minority women.1

The gender disparity in the STEM fields in the United States is wide! In 2016, women made up half of the total college-educated workforce, but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.1 While women receive over half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (17.9%), engineering (19.3%), physical sciences (39%), and mathematics (43.1%).

One issue of concern that could jeopardize women’s decisions to go into these fields is that in some STEM disciplines men outperform women on in-class exams and standardized tests.2,3 Numerous interventions, such as tutorials, peer instruction, and context-rich problems have been used to address the gender gap in STEM courses. While these approaches likely work, a novel approach known as values affirmation was recently studied in a college-level introductory physics class.2

Values affirmation is a psychological intervention whereby students engage in structured reflection on self-defining values. In this study, 399 students (283 men and 116 women) were randomly assigned to either a values affirmation group or a control group. Students in the values affirmation group were asked to select their most important values from a list and write an essay about why these values were important to them. This group would write about things such as friends and family in response to a series of structured prompts. The control group selected their least important values from the same list and were instructed to write an essay about why these values might be important to other people. Therefore, both groups wrote about values and their importance, but the exercise was self-relevant only for the values affirmation group.

This assignment was completed twice during the semester, in the first week of the course and shortly before the first midterm exam. Both groups were given 15 minutes for this writing exercise during the physics class. Students were assigned to the same group for both essays. The course instructor and teaching assistants were unaware of students’ group assignments. Moreover, the teaching assistants and students were blinded to the purpose of the writing exercises.1

To assess the effect of values affirmation on learning, the researchers examined scores on three in-class exams, the in-class final, and a nationally-normed standardized test [the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE)].2
 Previously, men substantially outperformed women on the exams in this course and the FMCE.3 Specifically, 58% of females versus 35% of males fell into the lowest two pretest quintiles on a FMCE pretest, while 22% of females and 44% of males scored in the highest two quintiles.3 After taking the course, the post-test scores for males and females increased, on average, 10.7 points. Moreover, 64% of the males and 49% of the females scored above 60% on the post-test.3 If the difference in the FMCE scores after this intervention shrank, values affirmation might prove to be a promising way to address the STEM gender gap.2

The FMCE exam was administered twice during the introductory physics course, once during week 1 of the semester and once at the end of the semester. In the control group, men improved their FMCE scores more than women. However, in the values affirmation group, the gender performance gap disappeared.

Stereotype beliefs also appear to impact student performance. In the first weeks of the introductory physics course, students were asked to indicate their endorsement of the stereotype: men perform better than women in physics.2 Women in this study, as a whole, did not strongly endorse the stereotype; however, even a moderate level of stereotype endorsement was costly for women in the control group. Their FMCE exam scores were significantly lower as a function of stereotype endorsement.2 The values affirmation activity buffered women against this identity threat.2 The intervention eliminated the negative relationship between the exam scores and stereotype endorsement.2 On the other hand, men’s FMCE exam scores were not impacted regardless of whether they endorsed the gender stereotype or not.2

The results suggest that female students positively benefited from the values affirmation activity. Among women in the control group, there was a negative relationship between stereotype endorsement and end-of-semester FMCE scores.
2  In other words, as stereotype endorsement went up, FMCE scores went down. Among women in the values affirmation group, this relationship was not found.2

Looking at the average of the four exams in the course, men substantially outperformed women. However, the difference in the average scores between men and women was much smaller in the values affirmation group. The improvements in performance was also evident in the distribution of final letter grades. More women earned B’s in the values affirmation group than in the control group. Conversely, more women in the control group earned C’s than women assigned to the values affirmation group.2

The results of this study suggest that the values affirmation activity reduces the gender gap and women who endorsed the gender stereotype benefitted the most.2 Values affirmation is an intervention that could be used in an effort to lessen evaluative stress and also improve the performance of stereotype-threatened students.2 Values affirmation activities offer a promising intervention to reduce the gender achievement gap in STEM courses.

  1. Britsch B, Carter G, Gustafson J, et al. “Statistics.” National Girls Collaborative Project. 2016. Available from: https://ngcproject.org/statistics. Accessed April 6, 2019.
  2. Miyake A, Kost-Smith LE, Finkelstein ND, et al. “Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation.” Science 2010; 330: 1234-37.
  3. Kost LE, Pollock SJ, Finkelstein ND. “Characterizing the gender gap in introductory physics.” Physics Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research. January 2009. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.5.010101. Accessed April 8, 2019. 

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