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Stereotype Threat: How Often Are Students Assigned Works By Female Authors?


All right, it's that time of year. Schools and universities are underway across the country, and professors are busy assigning reading materials for courses. Well, at Brown University, one researcher decided to analyze how likely course readings were to be authored by men versus authored by women. NPR's Shankar Vedantam is here to explain what that researcher found. Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: So what did we discover here?

VEDANTAM: Well, Jeff Colgan was looking specifically at reading materials given to Ph.D. students in international relations. Out of more than 3,000 readings assigned to students at 42 schools, Colgan found that more than 4 in 5 of the readings were by male authors or teams comprised entirely of men, and only 1 in 5 were by women or by teams that included at least one woman.

GREENE: Now, could there be an easy explanation for this, that there are more men in the fields that were being assigned?

VEDANTAM: Well, that's certainly a part of it, but it isn't the whole story, David. Colgan analyzed a bunch of syllabi with about 4,000 readings. About half of these were syllabi assigned by female professors, and half were assigned by male professors. He found that female professors assigned about 36 percent more female-authored readings. He also found something curious. Male professors were far more likely than female professors to assign things that they had written themselves, whereas female professors were much less likely to assign papers or books that they had written to their students.

GREENE: OK, so one thing at work here might be male ego?

VEDANTAM: It could be. You know, I asked Colgan why this would happen. He told me there were at least three theories. One is that there are simply more senior male professors than female professors. It could also be that men and women gravitate to different areas in the field, and men are writing in areas that are of greater importance or relevance to students. But I think the fact that female professors are less likely to assign their own work does suggest the hand of bias. It would appear that both male and female professors might need to take the work of female professors a little more seriously.

GREENE: And I guess these are the kinds of biases that could really have a snowballing effect in a field like international relations.

VEDANTAM: They can, especially when you consider the fact that nearly half of all students entering the field of international relations today are women, David. And it might be important for them to see women represented in the things they're reading.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us on the show to talk about social science research. Shankar explores how feeling like an outsider can shape your behavior and also other ideas on his new podcast, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of Hidden Brain. The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways. Hidden Brain is among the most popular podcasts in the world, with over two million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is featured on some 250 public radio stations across the United States.
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