Claude Khalife: Don’t forget that gender bias still exists in college classrooms

Let me paint a mental picture: An engineering student is hard at work, bending over a cluttered desk strewn with papers and empty energy drink cans, scratching formulas in margins and scrubbing away miscalculations with an eraser.

What does that person look like? Most people probably pictured that imaginary student as a man.

After noticing the extent to which male undergraduate biology students perceived their male peers as more knowledgeable than their female classmates, a group of anthropologists at the University of Washington decided to conduct a study. Students in biology classes were asked to name classmates with the strongest grasp of the material, and professors were asked to rank students by their level of outspokenness.

The researchers’ findings verified their original hypothesis: Male students consistently ranked other male classmates as smarter than female classmates who received similar grades. This comes from something “under the conscious,” and is socialized in men their whole lives, lead author Dan Grunspan said. These results may suggest a gender bias across science, technology, engineering and math fields, the researchers argue, and could represent a broader bias across majors.

We, especially men, must figure out how to counteract the problem of unconscious bias: those minute distinctions and assumptions we make based on our upbringing, experiences and our wider social environment. We need to constantly interrogate our beliefs about other people, question where they come from and understand why we have them. That’s an important first step to ending gender bias in the classroom.

Let’s look at the facts. Among more than 1,700 students surveyed, male students displayed 19 times more gender bias than female students. Male students were more likely to name their male peers as the most knowledgeable members of the class. Female students, meanwhile, had rates of bias that were statistically negligible, according to the study. To be considered as academically capable as their male counterparts with similar GPAs, female students needed GPAs more than 0.75 points higher, according to the study.

“That’s like believing a male with a B and a female with an A+ have the same ability,” lead researcher Sarah Eddy wrote in the study.

I’d invite those who feel immune to such dated beliefs to take a quick Project Implicit test. Created by two Harvard University psychology professors, the test uses word-association games to examine users’ implicit biases without giving them time to mull over responses. After taking a few tests, I was told not only that I tend to associate men with the sciences and women with humanities, but also that I associate Arab-Muslim names with more violent characteristics than those of other nationalities.

These results fly in the face of my conscious thoughts and beliefs (I’m an Arab-American myself), yet this dissonance is precisely the goal of Project Implicit. I don’t believe that men are inherently better at science than women, but ask me to picture the head of a research lab and I automatically envision a man in a white lab coat.

Likewise, my enduring love of poetry was something I wanted to keep hidden from male friends for fear of being branded as too weak, too feminine. If I hadn’t stumbled upon more “masculine” poets like Kipling or Bukowski, I may have given up poetry as a passion.

For me, poetry is simply a hobby. But these biases could keep a young girl who dreams of curing cancer or finally stumbling upon the secret to cold fusion from the STEM track altogether. That isn’t something we can accept – everyone should feel like any career path is open to them as long as they have the drive to work for it.

Thankfully, GW is already making moves to address the gender gap in STEM by recruiting more female faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. While that’s a great step, we can’t stop there. Individuals have to step up, too.

Professors and students should make sure that female classmates know that their opinions and insights are welcomed and warranted. Mindfulness is essential: Sexist ideas are so ingrained in the general populace that fighting back means waging a constant mental struggle.

The problem of gender inequality in the classroom cannot be solved just in the classroom, and instead will require a wider sociocultural shift. Yet, the classroom is where the fight must begin. While we at GW may believe we have done away with outdated ideas about gender and intelligence, studies like these prove the exact opposite.

Claude Khalife, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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