Affirming women's self integrity is a healthy trend. Women who are told they're destined to be nurturing people when it comes to health and well-being, often shy away from physics, but not when the field is health physics and biophysics. Is it because it deals with the physics of life and life creation?
And can simple writing exercises help more women to enter the physical sciences if the approach is through a chance at nurturing themselves during the career preparation stage by journaling for health, that is simple writing exercises? The focus in women and their "internal compass" compared to men and their "moral compass," if there are any differences between the moral and internal compass of male or female humans when it comes to healthy trends.
Are there psychological factors or monetary factors in motivating women to enter the harder sciences such as physics? Or do women prefer the personal to the impersonal when it comes to science or health? Do women prefer to say they 'design' and men prefer to say they 'engineer?'
Do women need more of an internal compass than men in certain university courses or majors? According to the November 25, 2010 news release, "Gender gap in physics exams reduced by simple writing exercises, says CU-Boulder study," women are underrepresented and on average perform more poorly than men in introductory physics. But a recent study finds that this gap arises predominantly from differential preparation prior to college and psychological factors, rather than differences in ability.
And the effects of these psychological factors can be largely overcome with a brief writing exercise focusing on important values, such as friends and family, learning or even music. This simple "values affirmation" writing exercise generally raised women's course grades from the "C" to "B" range, a study led by University of Colorado at Boulder researchers has found.
Self-affirming essays and women
These self-affirming essays, the researchers suggest, assuaged women's stress about being seen in light of negative stereotypes about women in science. Besides getting better grades, the women also showed greater mastery over the conceptual material, the team found. Men also need self-affirming, but do they get it in other ways from writing exercises which help women to put their most important values in ink, voice, video, or print?
Would writing exercises on what women affirm as their most important values help at Sacramento State University or the University of California Davis in our local area also work as well? Back in the 1950s, women who were majoring in fashion design had to take a course in physics at the Fashion Institute of Technology, then a two-year college in New York.
When some women were presented with an array of equations on the first day of physics class, you can guess who might have dropped out of the school the first week and instead pursued a career in fashion design, illustration, or fashion journalism in other schools not requiring physics or math courses for art majors.
Yet the idea of art and physics requiring aptitude in spatial relations is not unfounded. In the Colorado University study, researchers found that by asking the women to write simple exercises, the positive effects of values affirmation were found to be most pronounced among women who tended to believe in the stereotype that men are better than women at physics.
Those are key findings of a study published in the Nov. 26 edition of Science. Five of the study's authors are at CU-Boulder and one is a former CU researcher now at Stanford University, California.
"I just wasn't expecting this kind of finding," said Akira Miyake, a CU-Boulder professor of psychology and neuroscience and lead author on the Science paper, according to the November 25, 2010 news release. As Miyake noted, the students in the study were all majors in so-called STEM disciplines -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
"They're already interested in these things and are highly motivated to do well in that course," he stated in the news release. "It still amazes me that this writing exercise has such positive influences."
Miyake led the team of researchers -- three from psychology and three from physics -- who applied recent psychological research on "identity threat" to women in a challenging physics course.
How writing exercises work when motivating women to enter health and science areas
If the writing exercises work with women majoring in math, technology, science, and engineering, how well would it work with women majoring in subjects that require no math, such as teaching journalism, English, fine arts, or history? In Sacramento area colleges a popular major for women is neuroscience, especially for premedical courses majors.
Tiffany Ito, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and co-author of the study, notes that the common expectation that men do better in physics than do women is an "identity threat" that can undermine women's ability to reach their full potential. So is there really a gender stereotype that women internalize and live out by avoiding physics courses or major in physics? Women majoring in mathematics may also have internalized such stereotypes and need to write their values in simple writing exercises such as journaling out the stereotype.
Unwinding the stereotype
Women are aware of the stereotype and might worry that their performance in a physics class will confirm the stereotype." That creates some fear, stress and anxiety," Miyake said, according to the news release. "It's especially bad during exams" when the stakes are high and they know they are being evaluated.
The anxiety might distract women from the course material, he said in the news release. Can this type of stress push women to do less than their potential on tests where they need a certain score, for example, to get into medical school?
Women, who constitute a minority of physics students, also are affected by external cues, Ito added. "Those women are sitting in a class consisting of predominantly men, and they might wonder if the men buy into the stereotype and think they're better at physics."
Male stereotypical images of women in physics compared to women in health
Men visual women more frequently as nurses and physicians rather than particle physicists and mechanical engineers usually because that's what they've seen or that's what's familiar. Do women graduates in physics later think that when in a job or any physics-related career that the men are stereotyping them as not as interested in physics as the guys?
What about college majors that straddle health care and physics, such as a major in health physics? Would the so-called nourishing careers in health care combine well with a physics major, and are women pushed into health care physics careers as compared to theoretical or particle physics where they have to belly up to the particle accelerators with the men?
Affirming women's self integrity
According to the press release, Ito explained, "However, "The research shows that if we affirm people's self integrity, you buffer them from other threats." How would university professors in physics affirm the women's self integrity? And would they do it differently from affirming the male student's self-integrity?
Geoffrey Cohen, a co-author of the study and a former CU psychologist, has studied this effect among ethnic minorities in middle schools. Cohen, now a professor in Stanford University's School of Education and the department of psychology as well as a courtesy professor at the Graduate School of Business, said the affirmation exercises can be powerful, according to the Nov. 25, 2010 news release.
As Cohen explains, a values-affirmation exercise might prompt thoughts such as these: " 'In spite of all the adversity in my environment, here is what I care about. Here's what gives me my internal compass. Here is what I stand for.' And that can be alleviating in a stressful situation." What is not known, the psychologists emphasize, is exactly how values-affirmation exercises work or whether they will work in other physics or STEM courses.
The physicists also note that this research narrowed but did not eliminate the gender gap. Women generally enter college less prepared for college physics courses than men. The big problem is why. Why would women be less prepared for a required course in college physics than most men? Is it something that parents can do even if teachers are not preparing women for college physics?
Or do parents and teachers believe a woman needs a specific intelligence level to handle a college physics course. For example, if you want to be a speech and/or audio therapist, you need to pass an undergraduate course in physics. What if you are great at speech therapy and relating to people, but had problems passing algebra?
Do you take the physics course that's required and earn your degree and certification as a speech therapist? Or do you change your major to public speaking instead of speech therapy or instead take American sign language courses and interpret for the hearing impaired? Many other majors also require a course in college physics. Why should women try to avoid this type of course?
Lauren Kost-Smith, a co-author and a physics graduate student who has won the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in STEM Education, has done several studies of the gender gap in physics. She noted that for six or seven semesters, CU women completing conceptual-mastery tests in physics did consistently worse than did men, but factors such as prior course work and demonstrated aptitude did not fully account for the difference, according to the news release.
In CU's randomized double-blind experiment, 399 students, including 283 men and 116 women, were randomly assigned writing assignments that either affirmed their values or did not. Students completed the writing exercises twice, in the first week of the semester and during the week preceding the first mid-term exam.
Students in the "affirmation group" were given a list of 12 values, such as "relationships with friends and family" or "learning or gaining knowledge," and were asked to write about the values most important to them.
The remaining students in the "control" group were asked to pick values on the list that were least important to them and to write about why those values might be important to other people. "Thus, both groups wrote about values and their importance, but the exercise was self-relevant only for the affirmation group," the authors write, as noted in the news release.
Additionally, the team measured how much each student embraced the gender stereotype
As part of an online survey given early in the semester, students were asked to rank their agreement (from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree") with this statement: "According to my own personal beliefs, I expect men to generally do better in physics than women."
Among the women who more strongly endorsed the stereotype, women in the affirmation group obtained higher course grades and showed better conceptual mastery of physics than women in the control group who also agreed with the statement.
Men's grades and conceptual mastery were not significantly affected by the values-affirmation exercise. So why do women do better when they do writing exercises? Is it because women tend to be more verbal or find expressing themselves easier in words? Can women express themselves equally in mathematical equations as well?
Steven Pollock, professor of physics and a CU President's Teaching Scholar, noted that the study funded by the National Science Foundation is a "small piece" of a large puzzle, and he and his colleagues stressed that the results are no silver bullet in STEM education.
While concurring, Noah Finkelstein, a co-author and associate professor in physics, added, "This is a really exciting finding. It bears further exploration. These results hold significant promise for addressing differential performance and the significant disparity of recruitment and retention of women in STEM disciplines." One way to look at gender issues in the study of physics at college is to look at how well women do in high school geometry.
How well did the woman do in high-school geometry?
That's one indicator of doing well in physics in college for some women. But if the writing exercises helps, ask yourself why. And think about the reasons why some women need to affirm their values when affirming values in writing doesn't improve the physics grades of male students.
Could it simply be women's brain circuitry is wired differently and physics problems are solved by women on one side of the brain, whereas the same problems are solved by men in a different area or perhaps with different circuitry? Just ask successful women physicists how they did in college physics. A lot of women in physics were straight A students.
The idea is to find out why. Three years ago an international conference of women in physics addressed women in the profession and those who would like to be. Check out the site, 4th IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics. Also see the Working Group on Women in Physics.