In a College Biology Class, Women Were Far More Likely to Underestimate Their Own Intelligence Than Men

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

By now almost everyone is aware that women are underrepresented in many STEM fields. There are some exceptions, though. One of them is biology. Back in 2011, an article in The New York Times aptly titled “Where the women are: biology” pointed out that women in STEM are clustered in the life sciences. In the article, Paula E. Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University, said: “Women historically have been interested in subjects that were less math intensive and that had goals of helping people, and biology and the medical sciences have both of those.”

It’s not surprising, then, that more than 60% of biology majors and 50% of biosciences graduate students are female. These numbers may lead to think that biology is one of the STEM fields that does not face gender inequality. However, a few years ago a large study of gender differences in introductory college-level biology courses found evidence of gender-based gaps in both achievement and class participation.

The study (Gender Gaps in Achievement and Participation in Multiple Introductory Biology Classrooms) was published in 2014 and found that despite numerical dominance of females, gender disparities remain an issue in introductory biology classrooms. Specifically, the study showed that female students consistently underperform on exams compared with males with similar overall college grade point averages. In addition, although females on average represent 60% of the students in these courses, their voices make up less than 40% of those heard responding to instructor-posed questions to the class, one of the most common ways of engaging students in large lectures.

Sarah Eddy, a co-author of the study, said: “Introductory biology classes are the first opportunities for many students to interact with professionals and peers in their intended fields. This is a critical opportunity to build up their confidence so that they can succeed in the field. Part of building that confidence is gaining recognition from their classmates and instructors. If females aren’t heard as often as males, they don’t have the same opportunity to succeed as biology majors.”

Now, results from a new study (Who perceives they are smarter? Exploring the influence of student characteristics on student academic self-concept in physiology) published yesterday (April 4, 2018), show that gender greatly impacts students’ perceptions of their own intelligence, particularly when they compare themselves to others. Specifically, the results show that in a college biology classroom, women are far more likely to underestimate their own intelligence than men. Men perceive themselves as smarter, even when compared to women whose grades prove they are just as smart. In addition, male students are more likely than females to say they are smarter than the person they are working with, regardless of whether their class partners are men or women.

Although the study was based on students in a single class, it highlights how differently men and women in science perceive their abilities, potentially leading to differences in confidence, motivation, and participation.

Sara Brownell, one of the study co-authors, told The New York Times: “It’s not simply enough to count up the number of students in the class and say, ‘Well, we have representation of women; women’s experiences in biology are exactly the same as men,’ because what we’re seeing is they’re not.”

Katelyn Cooper, another study co-author, said in a press release: “This is not an easy problem to fix. It’s a mindset that has likely been engrained in female students since they began their academic journeys. However, we can start by structuring group work in a way that ensures everyone’s voices are heard. One of our previous studies showed us that telling students it’s important to hear from everyone in the group could be enough to help them take a more equitable approach to group work.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.

23 comments

  1. Specifically from my experience, I always underestimate myself mainly in my science courses here at Georgia State even though I know I may be more prepared than some of my male classmates. I think this gender disparity comes from how boys and girls were treated growing up with their normal “societal roles”. Even now, there is a double standard for men and women. When men do one thing, they are congratulated for it but if women do the exact same thing, they are typically looked down on it or is shown a lack of support. With this, it is no surprise to me that women, especially in a field that is seen as a more masculine field, have women with low confidence levels. This lack of confidence that is seen in women in the STEM field also exists with women in other fields also. In the book Lean in for Graduates by Sheryl Sanders, she talks about one of the experiences she has has where she too lacked confidence in a situation where she was more than prepared in when compared to her brother, who was in the exact same situation as she was, expressed confidence without being as prepared as her. This goes to show that this is a bigger issue that not only seen in college students but is an issue that can still be relevant after that stage in your life if the perception that women have on themselves stay the same.

    • I defiantly can relate and agree with your comment! Like you I also underestimated my abilities as a college student, I would push myself to be the best student, but when it’s time to raise my hand I chicken out. Ironically, this just happen this past week I was the only student who knew the answer and instead of “siting at the table” and being a part of the conversation I feared that I was going to embarrass myself. Also like you, I related to Sandberg in that passage. Like Sanberg I would prepare myself for an exam and after taking it, I would always think that I failed while my peers would take the same test with no worries. Fortunately, when getting my score I would ace my exams! At this time my goal is to encourage myself no matter the obstacle!

  2. The underestimation of a women’s own intelligence seems true, since most women are not comfortable showing their intelligence to the whole class. Usually in a classroom, male students are more prone to ask questions and women are better listeners. In group work, a male student could easily act dominant over the women in the group because he might believe he is more intelligent. Personally, it is very easy to underestimate my own knowledge while taking an exam, or while presenting a project to the class. I believe, women fear that possibility that they could be wrong. And rather learning from their wrong answer, we chose to not speak up, so that we don’t embarrass ourselves. I would want to encourage women to speak up, and ask questions because it is a learning technique. Males are better at accepting the fact they might be wrong and still choose to speak up. Women have to learn to be more confident in themselves, and believe that they are just as capable as men. I do agree that introductory biology classes is the beginning for women to grasp their ability to speak up. I think these beginner classes is where they should interact and build relationships with their classmates in order to feel accepted and comfortable. It is critical for us to stop underestimating ourselves, because that gives the right for other people to also underestimate us.

  3. Confidence appears to be the key to gaining success in any field, not just STEM. This is a message that I have heard from many mentors. Having self-assurance increases your chances of performing better. The post suggests that ” women are far more likely to underestimate their intelligence than men [and that] men perceive themselves as smarter…..” I can attest to observing such differences in confidence between myself and male peers. In my biochemistry class, a male peer made a C on an exam, and his confidence in his abilities did not falter. He proclaimed to our group of friends that the grade, though it sucked ,did not reflect his knowledge. Sure enough on our next exam, he made an A. Rather than seeing those grades as a mere hitch in the road, by default, I immediately go to questioning my abilities. I often ask myself things such as ” Am I smart? , “Is my GPA a lie? , “Will I even make it to [insert goal]?” These are some of the many avenues my mind wanders towards . A lack of confidence in STEM classes leads to seconding guessing yourself constantly, measuring your abilities to others, and making poor decisions. These are all things that I have done because I felt inadequate when it came to academics. Overriding such harmful thoughts takes a long time. I wholeheartedly believe that women in science have the ability work on a leveled playing field as male peers. The only visible difference besides anatomical and biological features, is our attitudes towards how we perform.

    • I agree with your comment on how confidence plays a key role in gaining sucess. This was also a comment that I have heard numerous times. It is something easier said than done. Like how you have previously mentioned before that, you would immediately question your abilities if you got a bad grade and I also have thought the same way too. I often questioned my skills when I got a bad grade because I study so much for the class, yet I still struggle. My confidence level dropped, and I start having negative thoughts like will I be able to go to medical school if I fail this class? It has been very difficult to change my mindset because it has been a mindset that almost all females have since growing up. I believe a better solution instead of others telling me that I have to be confident, they should instead say that they believe in me. Part of the reasons why I still haven’t given up because my friends and family told me that they believe in me. They gave me some amount hope and confidence even if it isn’t much just by saying, “I believe in you.”Thus, we need to have a strong support group to help give women the confidence they need.

  4. Through my time as an undergraduate, I can understand what this post discussed. Most of the time when I think about the gender gap within STEM, it is hard for me to recognize it specifically in Biology. As the post pointed out, this is because most Biology majors are females, therefore causing many to believe that no gender issues are going on in this field. However, when the study indicated that only 40% of classroom participation is from women, I could realize the problem. The evidence of decreased female participation even when they outnumber men in the field indicates that there is a distinction between the genders. Since I rarely participate in class discussions, discovering this statistic made me self-reflect. Personally, I have never been the one to blurt out answers as opposed to my male counterparts; I did not like speaking out. The reason was never that I was afraid to be wrong, it was because I did not want the attention of being wrong. Though I had high grades, I did not want to “expose myself” and make others realize I was not as smart as it seemed. This ultimately describes imposter syndrome. My lack of participation arises from a condition a lot of women face. So, if this is indeed the case for most women, it should be taken into consideration when evaluating the reasoning behind the provided data. However, I believe that there is still a substantial amount of variation among women’s reasoning for not participating. Therefore, I think this issue can’t be solved with a straightforward answer. If this sort of behavior stems from the beginning of their academic journey, efforts to prevent this must be taken as far back as elementary school, where classroom collaboration is first introduced.

    • Hi Roseleen, I agree with your post a lot! I am guilty to also not brag about my grades because I don’t want to come off as “smarter than everyone”. I believe this mindset is embedded into our minds at a young age. I have so many memories growing up where my friends and teachers discourage my intelligence. This discouragement lead to my lack of confidence in participating in class. I have this mindset where “I don’t want to give the wrong answer or look stupid” in front of my classmates. I think this is also related to how women are always worried about what others may think of them which is so ridiculous. Over the years my confidence level has diminished and I have more negative thoughts about myself. I agree with your statement that “the behavior stems from the beginning of their academic journey”, this is so true. In order to fix this issue we must start in early education to train young girls to be more confident in a classroom setting. Also, the training of teachers should emphasize gender equality and how to encourage student involvement within the classroom.

  5. We live in a reality where women are less inclined to boast about themselves, for fear of being looked at as self-centered or egocentric. When you live in a world where men can constantly express themselves in a positive way, but you as a woman cannot, you begin to hold yourself to a lower value than your male counterparts. I remember my freshmen year of college I had to take chemistry. I had a strong aversion towards that course because I doubted my abilities to pass with a good grade. My professor allowed the class to choose partners and I remember trying to partner up with a guy. I only wanted a guy because I knew that I would constantly doubt my answers, whereas men are more sure of themselves and what they do. I questioned my intelligence and whenever I got a good grade I was always surprised. There is a high importance on STEM classes, and it is a challenge for women to succeed in a career field that is seen as male-dominated. As of right now, I am taking microbiology, and I have seen first hand that the guys are always the ones to answer the question and when girls are called on they always mumble their answer. This past week I realized that I knew the material and the answers, but still mumbled my answers. I doubted myself, and I felt terrible every time one of my male counterparts would shout out the answer, whether it be wrong or right. In order for there to be change, women need to have a safe space. The problem also needs to be addressed in front of women and men. I believe that if women realize what they are subconsciously doing, they might notice more when they doubt themselves and can have that intrapersonal conversation.

  6. Us women did not become self-conscious by night, the patriarchal society that we live in made us so. I remember that in high school I would argue with boys that claimed to be smarter than me. Somehow the guy would always find some way to make himself seem better than me. When I first started dating back in high school, the topic of who was smarter would frequently arise. I would argue that I was more intelligent than he was, but I eventually learned that boys don’t like girls that are smarter them. I started keeping my achievements to myself so that I wouldn’t chase the boys away. Thankfully I know better than to do that now, and I don’t care if I chase boys away. However many women do not, and they feel like they have to undermine their intelligence to please the men around them. This can lead to them holding back from participating in class or applying for jobs. The point is that we need to embrace our intelligence and see where it takes us. We do not need to worry about boys and if they’re going to like us back if we show we are smarter than them.

    • I like that you brought up the patriarchal society we live in, because that is truly the root of our issues as women. We have never truly been seen as equals, or given the respect we deserve. Throughout history this has become a societal norm wherein it’s implications affect our behaviors. For many adolescents and young adults, being liked is a strong driving factor for many decisions. Society often tells women that the girls who are most well liked are those who remain passive and soft and acknowledge men as superior, especially academically and professionally.
      Throughout life we are also constantly making judgments on people. Classroom settings are no different. It is easy to pass judgement when you see the same people every day. As women, we know that we are constantly being judged for what we say and how we say it. So, in class, if we want to be liked by our peers, we may stay quiet when we have opportunities to speak up. We may hold ourselves back and keep our intelligence and achievements hidden.
      Ultimately, I absolutely agree with you. We do need to embrace our intelligence. We need to embrace our self worth and value and not allow ourselves to be belittled by placing our worth in the hands of men.

  7. Embracing confidence in your intelligence has been a challenging task for women within the STEM fields. From personal experience I tend to second guess myself or sometimes not answer a question in my biology class because I think my answer would be wrong. As a result my answer was indeed right when my male counterpart says exactly what I was thinking. I believe this behavior as embodied women due to society and growing in classroom settings where men answers are more valuable. The reason I am like this now is due to my high school professor which were majority male would ignore my hand in class or when I did answer a question would completely embarrass me because I thought differently. This was a discouragement and caused me to become less confident in participating in class. Even though this is issue is more prominent in STEM courses , it is present in other courses as well. The class that I was mistreated and only the male answers were perceived as correct was in my AP literature class. The lack of participation arises from childhood experiences. It is crucial to begin at a young age to teach young girls to be more confident in their intelligence by not ridiculing them from giving different interpretations, and encouraging those young girls who participate in class discussion.

  8. I think it is incredibly significant to note that women did not start underestimating their intelligence overnight. As previously mentioned, majority of this issue stems from the patriarchy. I do believe that women underestimating one another and their fellow female peers is a learned behavior and change starts with us as well. Growing up, I watched my mother underestimate her abilities in all areas of her life. From parenting, to starting her own business, she never quite understood what she was truly capable of. As a child, I saw that as normal and I grew to treat myself that way. In the classroom and in my extracurricular activities, I have always been really hard on myself. When I got of age, my mother quickly became frustrated and began hammering me with phrases like, “Believe in yourself!”, “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something!”, “Reach for the stars!.” How did she expect me to live by those principles when she wasn’t? She grew up in a very traditional home. Her mother stayed at home, cooked, cleaned, and raised her, her siblings & eventually my sibling and I. Her father was the breadwinner, building their home from scratch and working as an electrician. These principles were not something she was expected to live by in her household. She ought to learn how to cook, clean, and raise children. It wasn’t until later in her adult life she truly learned what it meant to be a woman in today’s society, facing adversity every single day. Since then she has taught us to be bold, courageous, and brave. Change begins with us. In our homes, study groups, and book clubs. Encourage your friends and always remember that you are more powerful than you could ever imagine.

    • I agree with you. It is important for women to uplift themselves and others. I had a similar, yet different experience growing up. I could always sense that my other lost hope in herself, and even today that is a sense of doubt when she does something. However, when it came to my sister and I she made sure that confidence was instilled in us. Whenever we would doubt ourselves, she would make us say things that were special about ourselves. I know that I am intelligent and can achieve anything I put my mind too, however, doubt always sets in when I realize I may be the only girl in a situation. I begin to question myself even if I know what I am doing or talking about. Women as a whole need to get together and uplift one another and men should also help. The world cannot get better if only one side sees the issue.

  9. Perhaps this issue stems from the pressure society has historically put on women to act. Women are expected to be humble, while men are encouraged to be confident in their abilities and pursue more difficult challenges. This mentality could be what’s causing women to doubt their abilities, and in this case their intelligence. Surely there are no differences in the average intelligence between men and women, so this issue must stem from some cultural barrier that has caused a large portion of women to underestimate their intelligence. As a man myself, I can say that I can confident in my abilities and I have not found myself underestimating my intelligence. Prior to entering college, I felt as I had the ability to pursue a career in any field, so my dilemma came from finding the field that I had the most passion for. Unfortunately, many women go into college worried about whether they have the intelligence to succeed in a certain field, and that ultimately sways their decision in terms of the career they decide to pursue. More women need to go into college with the confidence that they can succeed in any field, and this mentality can only be fostered by undergoing a major cultural shift in our society.

  10. I felt a connection with this post because I know for sure that this is a prevalent issue among women in college. It is very unfortunate that in an area where women have equal representation as men, we still underestimate our abilities although we are as capable as they are. Many of us like to minimalize our intelligence and our accomplishments so that we do not appear braggadocios, which by society’s standards is not an attractive look on a woman. Women are taught from a young age to be modest and humble and men to be confident and outspoken. Hence, the reason men are more likely to perceive themselves as smarter than women. I believe that self-doubt has no place in the minds and hearts of individuals who have dreams of growth and successes in their chosen fields. It is high time that we become confident in who we are and what we can do. Women are as competent as men, although we might not always feel that way, and as worthy as they are of a seat at the table. If we allow this insecurity to fester in us and suppress our ability to acknowledge our self-worth, we will remain standing on the outside watching in as all the great opportunities pass us by. Whenever our confidence in our abilities begins to waver, it is crucial that we remember how hard we’ve worked to get where we are and believe that we are as worthy as the next person.

  11. I may be the odd one out, but I’ve never felt less intelligent than a male just because they were a male. I feel that that “insecure” feeling can stem from your upbringing/ home life. If you’re raised to believe that men are superior, they’re better at everything, etc.., then you’ll naturally think that they’re more intelligent than you. In life, I believe that men are so confident because in general they don’t have to explain themselves for anything. If they make a mistake, it’s a “learning lesson”. Take for instance Cardi B, she’s receiving a lot of scrutiny for being so open about her pregnancy and her engagement. People are telling her that her career will be over once the baby comes and I think that those people are completely wrong. (Sheryl Sandberg had mentioned career life vs. motherhood in her book, and she exemplified how it’s very possible to be successful in both areas; you might not be on the top of your game in both areas at the same time, but you can eventually. ) Now, let’s look at famous men in the media, you hear no one scrutinizing them about their choices regarding parenthood. When they have kids, they receive praise and motivation. They’re allowed to be successful at both. I just feel that men are brought up to just naturally be more confident than females, but I feel like it’s a choice whether to underestimate yourself just because someone else is a male.

  12. This article and a lot of the comments state that women are underrepresented in STEM, but also other fields too. They say that women do not speak out. This is true to an extent. I knew a girl in my high school English class, who during our group discussions would always make these comments which everyone liked. The comments weren’t always so extravagant. It was something I had also thought of but I didn’t say so. Then when I try and say something, I didn’t get the same response. My comments were very detailed and analyzed the book just like the other girl did. So after this I would always be scared to make a comment, because of what happened. This girl was too confident in herself and her abilities it must have been what sold it to others. My point is that only boys are not like this but so are girls. Which means that not all girls are as people portray and that there also needs to be encouragement within the female group as well. This is due to the fact that there are females that often act like boys in behavior.

  13. Reading so much of the gender gap blog post made me realized that being a women in STEM, I’m at such a disadvantage. However, this also made me mentally stronger and if I was ever compared to a male, I will know I’m as strong as them.
    Growing up, I always thought women and men were equally represented in a classroom environment, not until I actually read the statistics about how we’re so underrepresented.
    Being in a such a diverse environment/school, we should always lift and help other women rise to the top. Sometimes, women underestimate their intelligence because they feel like they’re alone. Women are as intelligent as men because there are women scientists and doctors that are higher level than males in their field. Just because you’re a women shouldn’t be a reason why you feel underestimated compared to men. It’s a problem, but I believe it will gradually changes in the future

  14. The intelligence of women in general is a powerful tool; however, when women start undermining themselves it sets women behind men who continue to dominate. I believe that some women do sometimes second guess themselves in a classroom setting while it comes to tests, quizzes, presentations, or participation. It might be due to women thinking too much about all of the possibilities of the knowledge absorbed. I know that I find myself reasoning through simpleI questions. It could also be due to the low confidence level of most women while being compared to other students. I understand the feeling of undermining myself when knowing my information and answering a question when there is a possibility for other students to answer for comparison. It definitely makes me rethink raising my hand to participate. It take a lot of effort for me to build up the courage to raise my hand in class. It should not be this difficult for women to want to participate in class. It is a very tough problem to solve because it is more of a mentally engineered mechanism in women. I really think that group work should be more implemented in classrooms so that every women can have their voice heard. However, I believe creating a judgmental free and a supportive environment would encourage more women to feel comfortable expressing their opinion.

  15. In my personal experience from grade school to college, I have always been a quiet person who kept things to myself. Comparing to the opposite sex, I don’t usually speak up during discussion because I feel like I might say something dumb or it may not be the right answer. After reading many articles about women in the work field and their levels of confidence, I feel like sometime women don’t speak up is because they are not confident in their answers. Their answers has to be either sophisticated or at least 90% accurate for them to actually say it. Men, on the other hand, would say whatever that pops up in their mind. We all have different levels of confidence but I do believe that perhaps its the way men and women were brought up. For the longest, men has always had a voice in almost everything. Its only been recent that women finally got rights and can speak up in a male dominating world. Therefore, I feel like its understandable that women are still trying to have a voice whether its what they want to do or something they believed in. I do agree that group discussion will help in the nearby future. Ive always hated speaking up, however I’ve come to realize, through class discussion and group activities, that Im not as nervous to speak in front of people as I used to be back when I was younger. I think its a great idea to get everyone familiar with speaking up and having their voice heard.

  16. As I was reading through these comments, I came to realize that I might be the minority that does not agree with the article wholeheartedly. As a woman in STEM, I believe my confidence level does not where it is due to my gender or that because I am a woman I am less likely to say I am smarter than my peers. I believe women are generally more emotional and less boastful then men. Therefore, even if it is the truth we are less likely to come out and say, ” Oh yes !, I know I am smarter than he/she is”. As a freshman in my intro courses, I did not speak up in class and I still don’t. That is simply because most of the time, I do not have anything to say or add to the class discussion like it was previously stated, women are better listeners. Also, I need time to process what I have learned in class and then will come back to my professor lately to ask questions. It was not stated in the article if those same female students didn’t go to their professor after class to ask questions or visit them during their office hours. Speaking up in class is not a judgment of confidence, in my opinion, it is a better observation of how an individual learns.

  17. Underestimating yourself is what I think women do best. We are constantly asking ourselves things such as, “What will other people think?”, “Am I really smart enough to take this class?”, “Do I have what it takes?” These are just a few examples that I personally have asked myself. Having confidence in ones ability is special and inspirational. While reading this article I thought of something which really clicked for me. I think women have to prove their intelligence while men have to prove they aren’t intelligent. People look to men for strength and leadership so it is expected that every man have these qualities and capabilities. As the article stated, women are the majority in biology majors but are heard much less in the classroom. The fear of being wrong and judged by others, especially other women, is tremendous. With the help of specific teachers throughout my college career I have overcome this for the most part. I think creating an open environment for students can be freeing and advantageous for everyone. Women sticking together and uplifting one another could be the turning point in our society. We already out number the men in this world so once we get our foot in the door the only thing stopping our progression is us.

  18. Growing up surrounded by independent, strong-minded women may have been an advantage. I was never allowed to doubt myself or talk negatively about myself as a child. I would be reprimanded and scolded. I have never felt as if men are superior to me or smarter. If anything, seeing anyone excel more than me motivates me to do better. I do not like to separate the two genders, especially in regards to intelligence. There may be studies that support the idea of men outperforming women, but they do not necessarily represent the entire population as a whole, and personally, I believe it depends on an individuals mindset. Society and social media can play a huge role in creating the narrative of a smart, independent, and dominant man versus the submissive, ditzy woman. This narrative has been curated and continue by society, but it can be diminished by the leaders of the world who choose not to enforce these ideas. Needless to say, I believe that a man’s intelligence stems from his confidence and the continuous appraisal they receive from everyone that surrounds them. If women do not do this for them then who will. We women as a community should take it upon ourselves to encourage and boost each other up.

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