businessmen high fiving

Study finds male undergrads assume other men are the most knowledgeable in class

It’s a feminist truism that women can just just as sexist as men. After all, we all live under the patriarchy so none of us can claim immunity to unconscious gender bias. We’ve all been socialized since birth to view men as a little better — especially a little more authoritative.

I believe that — and there’s certainly plenty of evidence of women-on-women sexism to point to — but sometimes the problem really is just with the guys. In a new study out of the University of Washington, researchers asked undergrads to nominate their most knowledgeable classmates. The Washington Post reports the results:

After surveying roughly 1,700 students across three biology courses, they found young men consistently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just-as-savvy female classmates.

Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A’s, they’d receive equal applause from female students — but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star.

[…] Female students gave other female students a recognition “boost” equivalent to a GPA bump of 0.04 — too tiny to indicate any gender preference, Grunspan said. Male students, however, awarded fellow male students a recognition boost equivalent to a GPA increase of 0.76.

The researchers controlled for the possibility that the male students got more credit from their peers simply because they were more likely to speak up frequently in class — while the men did raise their hands more, that didn’t explain the difference. Just being guy makes you seem smarter to other guys. And even though it’s just half of the students demonstrating this gender bias, it’s enough to make a difference: The students voted as the best by their peers were overwhelmingly men. “Men dominated the top three slots in all three classes, while women peaked at No. 4.”

Dan Grunspan, the prof who conducted the study — after noticing this dynamic play out in real life among his students — points out that this lack of recognition can have real consequences for young college women. While it’s nice to imagine that our confidence doesn’t hinge on whether our peers realize how brilliant we are, slights like this can add up, Grunspan said. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that women in male-dominated fields like STEM are so much more likely than men to drop their majors — a few semesters of being underestimated by the dudes who make up the majority of your classmates would be demoralizing for anyone.

And, of course, in the real world after graduation, these guys are no longer just classmates offering more figurative high fives to other students — they’re colleagues and supervisors giving professional feedback that can shape careers.

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Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard. Before become a full-time writer, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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