Science Scene: Internalized gender roles affect STEM performance, attraction

Ellen Airhart

When Cady Heron failed calculus in order to impress her crush, Aaron Samuels, in the film “Mean Girls,” she showed how detrimental internalized gender roles can be.

Men often dislike when women outsmart them in traditionally male-dominated tasks, such as math or other analytical activities, and women may alter their performances in order to comply with expectations according to some studies. UT associate professor Paul Eastwick and his colleagues conducted a study in which they polled undergraduate men about whether they would be interested in dating women who had scored higher than them on tests.

Most of the men, 86 percent, said they would. Then the scientists put the men in situations where they had to directly interact with women who beat them on the test. Not only were they more likely to sit farther away from the smart women and rate them as less desirable — there was evidence to suggest the undergraduate men saw the smart women as a threat to their masculinity. 

“I think what’s intriguing is the reversal that we found,” Eastwick said. “When the woman was beating the men on the tests in the abstract, they liked her more, and when she was beating them face-to-face, they liked her less.”

In another study Eastwick took part in, heterosexual college women who said they wanted to date men smarter than they are showed worse performance on a math test, less interest in math and a decreased desire to go into a STEM field. Men who said they preferred smarter women did not experience similar reduced math scores or decreased interest in STEM fields. 

Other studies support the idea that men and women internalize gender stereotypes. Men are more likely to express their belief in gender equality in the presence of attractive women who express belief in nontraditional gender roles, although unattractive women did not have this effect, according to a 1975 study. The same scientists did a similar study on the effects of sexist, attractive men on women and found similar results: The women presented themselves in a way that correlated with traditional gender stereotypes while interacting with men who believed the stereotypes, according to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 

Another, more recent study supports the 1975 research. Female engineers who interacted with sexist, sexually-interested men before taking an engineering test performed worse on the test than women who interacted with nonsexist men, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. These results did not apply when the women took an English test. 

Eastwick’s study supported these previous results, but revealed the important caveat that these effects on women were only present when the women expressed interest in dating men more intelligent than they are — a desire correlated with belief in conventional gender roles. When women did not say they were interested in dating men smarter than they are, their performance on math tests and interest in STEM fields actually went up after they talked about their romantic goals. 

Eastwick said as women continue to make academic strides and embrace nontraditional gender roles, men will have to get used to being outsmarted by their partners.

“Women should not be dumbing anything down,” Eastwick said. “Men are going to have to learn to be bested from time to time by people that they’re close to.”