It’s no secret that the number of women in science is much lower than that of men. But why is that? Some may (wrongly) argue that women are not as gifted as men, while some will say that it’s the societal construct that has tended to discourage females from pursuing such a career. Now, new research adds a somewhat interesting insight to the mix: how women perceive their own intelligence.

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Young female scientists tend to underestimate their own intelligence, suggests new research.

When it comes to the representation of women in science, the situation is dire. In fact, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimate that only 28 percent of the world’s researchers are women.

In the United States, under 24 percent of those employed in the umbrella field known as STEM — that is, the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields — are women.

But what explains the current male domination of STEM? Is it due to women being deprived of an “intrinsic aptitude” for science, as the president of Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, said in 1995?

Or is it because, in the laboratory, women turn on the waterworks at the faintest sign of criticism, as Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt (in)famously said a few years ago?

Certainly, lots of people — hopefully more and more — will find the “explanations” above ludicrous. But for those of you who don’t, a study recently published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education might offer some food for thought.

Katelyn Cooper, who’s a doctoral researcher in the Arizona State University (ASU) School of Life Sciences in Tempe, set out to study how undergraduate men and women perceived their own aptitude in a biology class.

Speaking about what motivated her to pursue the study, Cooper says, “I would ask students about how their classes were going and I noticed a trend.”

“Over and over again, women would tell me that they were afraid that other students thought that they were ‘stupid.’ I never heard this from the men in those same biology classes, so I wanted to study it.”

So, she and her team asked 250 study participants — who were all enrolled in the biology class — to assess their own intelligence and compare it with that of others in the class. The subjects also compared their intelligence with that of the student with whom they collaborated the most.

These results may come as a surprise for some people, but they will be old news to many. Yes, this study adds to the mounting evidence that women continuously underestimate themselves — even when factually, their skills are equal (if not superior, in some cases) to those of men.

Specifically, this study found that men are 3.2 times more likely than women to think that they are more intelligent than the person with whom they collaborate most often. This did not depend on whether their partner was a man or a woman.

The scientists also compared male and female students who had the same academic grade point average. And, male students tend to believe that they are smarter than 66 percent of their peers, whereas female students tended to think that they are superior to only 54 percent of the class.

Co-senior study author Sara Brownell, an assistant professor at ASU, comments on the significance of the findings for the academic milieu.

She says, “As we transition more of our courses into active learning classes where students interact more closely with each other, we need to consider that this might influence how students feel about themselves and their academic abilities.”

“When students are working together,” continues Prof. Brownell, “they are going to be comparing themselves more to each other. This study shows that women are disproportionately thinking that they are not as good as other students, so this a worrisome result of increased interactions among students.”

Cooper cautions that, given the importance of perceptions and self-perceptions in our society, the fact that women tend to underestimate themselves may make it harder for them to pursue careers in science.

This is not an easy problem to fix. It’s a mindset that has likely been engrained in female students since they began their academic journeys.”

Katelyn Cooper

“However,” she explains, “we can start by structuring group work in a way that ensures everyone’s voices are heard.”

“One of our previous studies,” says Cooper, “showed us that telling students it’s important to hear from everyone in the group could be enough to help them take a more equitable approach to group work.”