Monday, September 10, 2012

All it takes is hard work?

Recently I had an interesting juxtaposition  of experiences.

The first was attending a meeting at which some women scientists, all in academia, spoke. They all agreed that hard work, being passionate about what you do and following your dream were the keys to success. I felt a bit uncomfortable with that as I know many women who worked hard, were passionate about what they did and followed their dream and are no longer scientists, at least in the sense of being actively engaged in research. During questions at the end they were asked if women are at a disadvantage when it comes to careers in science. 'No, no' they all agreed, ignoring the accumulated data. In fact, they unanimously claimed, if anything being a woman was an advantage, since women are more visible.

The other was reading Claude Steele's book WhistlingVivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. (The title comes from the experience of a young black man. He found that people often reacted to him with fear until he started whistling classical music. The act of whistling classical music was enough to replace the stereotype 'violent young black man' with the stereotype 'educated individual'.) Claude Steele is the discoverer of the phenomenon of stereotype threat, in which being a member of a group that is stereotypically thought to be worse at some task can reduce performance on that task. One of the phenomena he describes in Whistling Vivaldi is what he calls 'over-efforting'. Essentially this describes students who fail to use effective strategies, presumably from a desire to prove themselves as individuals. One example he discusses is a notoriously difficult course that was required for entry into medical school. Many students would audit the course in one year and take if for credit the next or find ways of substituting a different course. However, while white and Asian students were happy to use these strategies, many black students would insist on taking on the course for credit even when, from the point of view of getting into medical school, it would have been strategically better to withdraw and either take it for credit the following year or substitute a different course. This led Steele, who is black, to question the advice he received from his parents that the key to success was hard work. He goes on to discuss an interesting experiment performed by O'Brien and Crandall ( A standard way of testing for stereotype threat is to have two groups sit a test. For one group membership of a particular group is made relevant; for the other, membership of that group is minimised. For example, if a group for which gender has been made relevant sit a maths test then the women tend to do worse that the men whereas if the group has been told that gender is not relevant then men and women perform the same. What O'Brien and Crandall did was have the groups do an easy maths test and a difficult maths test. Making gender relevant actually improved women's performance relative to men on the easy maths test but made women's performance worse on the difficult maths test. Steele suggests that responding to challenges by working hard is a successful strategy up to a point but fails when the challenges become more difficult.

The question this juxtaposition of experiences raised in my mind was: what should the message we give young women be? Should it be 'Work hard and you can achieve anything'? Or, should it be 'These are the potential difficulties and here are some strategies to get round them'?


  1. So how do you react to the situation you described in your first paragraph? If you pipe up and point out that there are lots of women who worked hard etc but couldn't stay in science research then you risk sounding bitter and twisted and unnecessarily negative. I've never quite worked that one out but I find it hard to stand by and let that myth get perpetuated.

    1. At the time I didn't say anything because I didn't want to inject a note of negativity. And then I blogged about it.

      I suppose one could say something like 'The data show that, statistically, women are disadvanteged in careers in science. There are a number of reasons for this and there are actions you can take to minimize their effects.'

  2. Hi Esther

    interesting topic, and one which needs further discussion. I am the new Regional Office for East Anglia at the IOP. would you be interested in having a chat over email? My full name is Esther Bennett and it is the standard IOP email address.

    I look forward to hearing from you
    Cheers Esther