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Student Well-Being Opinion

Depending on Gender, Students Talk About Their Abilities Differently

What teachers need to know about this bias
By Judd Kessler — June 08, 2022 2 min read
Why do male and female students talk so differently about their math and science ability?
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Why do male students and female students talk so differently about their math and science ability?

There’s a gender gap in how students talk about their ability, but it’s not just about confidence in their performance. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

I was ecstatic when I got on the phone to discuss writing this piece for Character Lab. But it was clear the editor didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“We actually hoped Christine would write it.”

Christine meant Christine Exley, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and my co-author on “The Gender Gap in Self-Promotion.” In our study, we found that when men and women performed equally well on a math and science test, women described their performance much less favorably than men did (for example, calling it “good” rather than “very good” or “exceptional”).

And it wasn’t just that women lacked confidence in their performance. Women and men who knew they performed equally well still described the same performance differently.

It was obvious why the editor preferred Christine. It was Christine who had given the thought-provoking academic talk that secured us an invitation to test for the gender gap among students in Character Lab Research Network. That test taught us that the gap was already present among 11-year-olds, the youngest group we studied.

And wasn’t it a little too on the nose for the male co-author to promote the paper about how men self-promote more than women?

But Christine didn’t want to write this piece, and we don’t believe the solution to the gender gap is to push women to self-promote more than they want to.

Women and girls may be optimizing in a world where they face backlash for talking about their performance and ability. And it’s unfair to put the burden on women to change how they act.

Real solutions require changing the system. In the workplace, we should rely less on self-evaluations in hiring and promotion. At school, we should encourage all students to excel in math and science, even if we hear them express insecurity about how well they might do—since that might just be the gender gap talking.

Don’t push people to self-promote more or less than they feel comfortable doing.

Do teach young people about the gender gap in self-promotion. Point out instances when the way people talk about their ability and performance is likely biased. And do promote your female colleagues who don’t do it themselves. Talk about their brilliance and how much your success is due to them, even when they don’t want to write this piece for Character Lab.

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