A psychological research published two weeks ago in the journal, Psychology of Women Quarterly proved that well-intentioned acclamations toward the female students could hurt her performance in math.
The study could help connect missing dots in today’s growing gender gap in Mathematics. Young girls, when compared to male classmates’ performance on high level math tests, were shown to perform poorly. Thus, less females pursue further careers in sciences or technology fields which are math-heavy.
Rotem Kahalon, the study author from Tel Aviv University realized that subtle things have an impact on women. She was inspired to conduct the research after an FB group post shared a job interview experience of a female applicant. The male interviewer complimented her on how pretty her eyes were. Though the applicant inquired on the relevance of that compliment to the job in question, she knew the interview was over after that point. It was hard for her to focus on the interview thereon.
Kahalon started burrowing various literatures but the materials she needed were wanting. “I found that there is a lot of research on more blatant behaviors that affect women performance (e.g. sexist humor or sexist behavior) unlike research on the subtle ways,” Kahalon said.
Kahalon started wondering what kind of effects does subtle ways have on people and if these effects are encountered by both sexes. She wanted to examine perceived positive behaviours specifically on compliments that drew attention to physical appearance. This curiosity led her and the team to embark on the research study.
The Study Process
The journal detailed the process featuring 88 female Israeli university students. One third of this group were asked to recall and write down situations where they received appearance compliments.The other third wrote about situations where they received compliments on competence, intelligence or skills from the opposite sex. The final third, however, were not asked to write anything.
Shortly after, all of the 8 participants were given math test similar to the questions given in the Graduate Record Examination. The 19 multiple-choice questions with relatively high difficulty must be answered in 15 mins.
The initial results demonstrated that women who received appearance compliments did less on their math test.
Another experiment was conducted involving 73 female and 75 male Israeli university students. The process involved filling out standard resume template where information on their education and work experience were indicated. The resume also attached a photograph of themselves which showed how they would look at a job interview.
The first group was told the line “I can see from your picture that your look is very presentable, and looking good is an advantage in the employment market.” In contrast, no appearance compliments whatsoever were told to the second group.
Kahalon and colleagues gleaned that the first group of male and female which received appearance compliments performed worst on math tests. However, the compliment this group received significantly improved their mood especially those who scored high in self-objectification measure.
The Israeli study explained that the society put so much weight and importance on women’s appearance. In effect, women internalized these societal expectations in order to conform by investing resources (physical and mental) in their appearance. Even social interactions also emphasized on appearances and sometimes could be harmful resulting in cognitive disruptions.
Kahalon explained, “We believe it is important to raise the awareness of the public—teachers, professors, bosses and coworkers, and so forth— to the negative effects this kind of seemingly positive situations might have. In our research, both men’s and women’s cognitive performance was negatively affected by the appearance compliment, but women outside of the lab usually received appearance compliments and are mostly affected by them.
There are social structures that seem positive, subtle and hard to recognize and even harder to change. One example cited is using gender positive stereotypes to compliment people. Females portrayed as warm and nurturing while men are portrayed as assertive and competent were considered in the onset as positive.
However this behavioral perceptions socialized male and female to distinct and separate directions that could impair decisions early in life.
“Our research adds up to previous research which tried to uncover those mechanisms and examine their effects,” Kahalon said. This research is expected to build up momentum for future research still necessary to bring to the surface other subtle mechanism that promotes gender inequality and how these mechanism can be scaled down.
Kahalon noted that the study focused only on non-intimate relationships and is different from appearance compliment in the landscape of intimate relationship. “It may be intriguing to examine their effects as well. Also, we want to arouse the public awareness to the findings that within this specific contexts, appearance compliments, even if were positively meant, might be harmful.” she added.
[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼=Kay Yeban 기자]