New study shows women can do math, and well

When I say “affirmative action” what comes to mind? While the readers of this post may think of this answer (because you are largely a self-selecting group), I doubt that many folks think of the definition as successful policy proposals that directly impact marginalized communities.

The notion of affirmative action is so maligned in our society that most folks likely think about heated debates and choosing a person of color/woman over an equally qualified white male. And then said white male sues the school for “reverse racism.”

Well, as it turns out, the effects of affirmative action can be determined using studies that measure methods that actively promote the underrepresented group. Scientific studies, FTW.

A new study, released in Science, indicates that policy-based initiatives can increase women’s participation and competitiveness in math and the quality of the resulting work.

Even though in many parts of the world women’s educational advances have surpassed those of men, it’s true that women are still underrepresented in positions of leadership and power within corporations, politics, and some scientific research fields. These disparities are often explained by pointing to two factors: continuing gender discrimination, and lower desire for competitiveness among women.

This new study focused on the issue of competitiveness. The experiment, done by Loukas Balafoutas and Matthias Sutter, involved three methods that provided an initial advantage to women in a math competition. The  researchers found that in each case, when offered that initial advantage, women entered the competitions more readily, but the aggregate performance of the participants was unaffected, and sometimes even improved. In other words, ladies can kick ass at the math-bowl, too.

Based on the premise that if competitors know they have a higher chance of success before a competition even begins, they will be more likely to enter it with more confidence in their own abilities, here’s how the study worked:

Balfoutas and Sutter created math competitions with rewards, drawing participants from an experimental pool of 360 undergraduate students broken into groups of 6—three women and three men. The three methods they examined were based on three kinds of commonly used policy initiatives practiced in European parliaments or public-sector job searches:

1. A quota system, requiring that a certain proportion of the winners be female;

2. Two sub-cases: the highest-performing woman was given preferential treatment in one, while in the other, if a tie occurred in the competition, the woman was always selected;

3. The competition was repeated until a certain fraction of the winners were women.

In article in Ars Technica, Matthew Francis writes:

“The common feature in all three methods is an affirmative action approach: the active promotion of the underrepresented group. Passive methods (such as increasing potential rewards for everyone) do improve participation by women, but they also improve men’s performance as well, which leaves the gender gap in place. Affirmative action, on the other hand, not only changes the odds of success by women, but (according to the authors of a related study) also increases their confidence and willingness to compete in the first place.”

Let’s also take a minute to point out that none of these methods constitute “reverse discrimination,” the nebulous and rarely clearly defined challenge that affirmative action plans often face. In none of these cases was a top-performing man denied a reward if he outperformed everyone else. In fact, the researches found the main effect to be an increase in the number of able women willing to participate in the competitions.

Another interesting element of the study is that it looked into the concerns that the teams therefore might not do as well in the competition, and that men may not be willing to cooperate with women after the end of the competition, due to resentment of their unequal treatment. Neither of these concerns were born out in this study. Not only did the inclusion of women not affect team success, Balfoutas and Sutter paired men and women in a coordination game after the contest. They found performance in this game did not decrease compared to the controls.

Notably, not all methods produced equal outcomes. And the study has focused on whether people enter into existing competitions, which is relevant to things such as job openings or political campaigns, but doesn’t address other issues, like the number of available jobs, promotion opportunities, the kinds of rewards up for grabs etc. Also, studies like these are most often gender-normative, most fundamentally, leaving them open to critique. But the researchers have given us a clearer understanding of how despite these limitations, gender-based affirmative action policies can increase the willingness of women to compete without affecting the chances of highly skilled men to succeed as well.

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