There’s been much talk – including from the White House – about encouraging women to pursue STEM fields. The Science and Engineering Indicators for 2014 showed that women are vastly underrepresented in STEM, comprising 28 percent of employed science and engineering professionals.

While efforts are focused on enticing women to go into these fields, you can’t help but wonder what is prompting this gender discrepancy in STEM. As a recent psychological study would suggest, the general populace still perceives women to be inherently incompatible with science professions. And greater exposure to women in science could be the key to changing these views.

study recently published by Linda Carli, a senior lecturer in psychology at Wellesley College, suggests that people’s perceptions of women don’t align with what they think it takes to succeed in science. According to Carli’s paper, “Stereotypes About Gender and Science: Women is not equal to Science,” subjects tended to associate the qualities they think it takes to be a scientist with traits attributed to men and not to women.

The findings showed that more people typically viewed women as having communal characteristics, such as being caring and unselfish. Meanwhile, they considered men to have agentic traits, like competitiveness and courageousness. Furthermore, the study revealed that subjects generally viewed scientists as also having strong ties to predominantly agentic qualities.

“Common cultural stereotypes about women, men, and scientists lead people to see women as incompatible with science.”

What do these results mean, exactly? According to a press release, Carli has extracted several interpretations from the data. For starters, there has been prior research showing the same associations of women having communal traits and men having agentic characteristics, which she thinks shows that gender stereotypes have not changed. At the same time, because people consider scientists to be agentic types, she believes these perceptions could be creating obstacles for women in STEM fields, creating a cultural view that women do not have what it takes to excel as scientists.

“Common cultural stereotypes about women, men, and scientists lead people to see women as incompatible with science,” Carli said in a statement. “Men are especially prone to this bias, but everyone shares it. This may result in prejudice (a dislike of female scientists compared with men) and discrimination against them.”

The study went one step further. In addition to examining the perceptions of both genders overall, she wanted to see how people’s environment altered their views of men, women and their propensity to fit into the role of scientist. The study zeroed in on women studying at all-female colleges (like Wellesley) and compared their notions of each gender and scientists to those of people attending co-ed schools.

The findings pointed to a correlation between these different educational environments and their perceptions of women and scientists. They suggest that attending an all-female college could influence women to be more likely to view their gender as a good fit for a career in science. The root of this altered perception comes from students at all-female colleges having greater exposure to women in STEM, Carli’s research indicates. The lecturer maintains that if more women are working in STEM – and if other women have exposure to those female scientists – people are more likely to perceive women as a characteristic fit for being successful scientists.

Image via Intel Free Press, CC BY-SA 2.0.