Slate article discusses research from the University of Colorado which shows that administering two 15 minute reflective writing exercises in science classes at the beginning of the semester helps boost women’s performance in the class.  The reason: writing about issues that matter to women, like relationships with family and friends, seem to put women at ease from the beginning of the class which helps them focus and try harder throughout the semester.

For Amanda Shaffer at Slate, the key to unlocking women’s potential seems to be in overcoming stereotypes: 

When it comes to math and science classes, women can be subtly hampered by negative stereotypes about their gender. This is the idea of stereotype threat, advanced by psychologists Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele, and now solidly established, as I’ve written in Slate before. Stereotype threat can roar into action when members of any stereotyped group are primed to think about belonging to it-in other words, when women focus on being female or African-Americans on being black. It causes performance problems, but stereotype threat can also be countered, often in simple ways. As the Colorado writing exercises show, getting women to focus on things they care about can buck them up. The lesson is that small doses of affirmation can do a lot of good.

Vivek Wadhwa who writes about the lack of women entrepreneurs in the tech sector made an argument back in May that the disproportionate lack of interest women show in science was a result of parents failing to encourage their girls to pursue subjects like math and science.  Wadhwa and others will be relieved to read that encouraging more women to pursue science is much easier than they had expected.

Taking both arguments together, it appears that women underperform in science classes because they expect to do poorly, either for lack of encouragement (by their parents for example) or because they have bought into stereotypes that women are not good at math and science. My theory for why a science-unrelated writing exercise boosts women’s overall performance scores in science classes is that women gain a sense of accomplishment from succeeding at the first task in the class which motivates them to try harder on the following assignments and tests.

Speaking from personal experience, after falling behind in high school math, I convinced myself that I was simply not born to do math. My desire to major in economics in college led me to reconsider that position and I got a self-help book on overcoming math anxiety before tackling any math classes. From there, I signed up for the easiest math class the college offered, Math for Liberal Arts Majors and excelled at it beyond expectation. These steps gave me the confidence to take on more challenging math classes which allowed me to pursue my major of choice.

A little confidence can go a long way. I hope educators across the country will take this research to heart so that more talented women will be encouraged to pursue their dreams, even if they entail learning math and science.