Men Underestimate the Women in Their Classes

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So many of our cultural icons for straight-A students are female: Hermione Granger, Rory Gilmore, Paris Geller (or even Monica Geller, for that matter). And yet in a real-life classroom, one new study suggests that it’s the guys who get the credit of being the superstars. More specifically, this was true of college students in biology classes, and the researchers argue that their findings may help explain some of the barriers women face when pursuing careers in the sciences.

University of Washington anthropologist Daniel Grunspan and his colleagues asked 1,700 biology students to rank how they viewed the intelligence of their fellow classmates. They found that the men tended to overestimate the smarts of their fellow dudes in the class, while at the same time underestimating their female classmates. Women’s answers, on the other hand, revealed no statistically significant gender bias; for example, they did overestimate their fellow female classmates’ GPAs, but by just 0.04 on average. As Danielle Paquette of the Washington Post explains:

Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A’s, they’d receive equal applause from female students — but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.

Grunspan’s survey also asked the students to choose the peers in their class they believed were the standouts. When these answers were averaged together, no female student even managed to crack the top three. In one rather extreme example, a male student in one class was chosen by 52 of his fellow classmates for one of those top slots; in contrast, his nearest female match only received nine. This trend held even when the researchers controlled for participation and actual grades the students earned.

And this has implications beyond the classroom, as the researchers argue that their findings may help explain the perpetuation of the STEM gender gap. Students in the sciences, whether they realize it or not, are likely internalizing the perceptions of their peers, which means, in turn, “that future populations of academics may perpetuate the same gender stereotypes that have been illuminated among current faculty.” Grunspan and his colleagues conclude their paper on a rather somber note, writing that their study “implies that the chilly environment for women [in the sciences] may not be going away any time soon.” Great.