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Study Reveals: Looks Do Matter When It Comes to STEM Success

March 19, 2019



Despite international efforts to increase diversity, the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics remain old [white] boys’ clubs.

So it’s no surprise that racial stereotypes around appearance can impact whether or not someone completes a STEM degree.


Researchers Mikki Hebl (Rice University), Melissa Williams (Emory University), and Julia George-Jones (University of Texas at Austin) examined five years’ worth of students entering college with dreams of earning diploma in science, technology, engineering, or math.


They looked specifically at the extent to which students exhibited physical features considered stereotypical for their race (white, black, Asian).

The results, sadly, were not unexpected.


Asian students who look more Asian, what researchers call “Asian stereotypical,” had significantly increased odds of completing a bachelor’s degree in STEM. Meanwhile, black students who look more black were less likely to finish their qualifications.


There were no meaningful differences reported for white students.

“I think we live in a presumed meritocracy where people believe what you get on tests and how you do in the classroom is what matters,” study co-author Hebl, chair of psychological sciences and professor of management at Rice University, said in a statement.




“Our research says that your looks do matter and can impact your likelihood to depart or remain in a STEM field,” she continued. “And that is pretty shocking.”


Shocking, or distressing?

In an attempt to identify the source of such biases, the team invited academic advisors from 50 top U.S. universities for a follow-up study.

Each was shown two photos (one higher and one lower in stereotypically, but always of the same race and gender) and told to recommend one to take a STEM-related class.


Their responses were consistent with the findings: stereotypical-looking Asian male and female students were overwhelmingly conscripted, while stereotypically black women were most often overlooked.

Black men, however, did not suffer the same prejudice—possibly, Hebl believes, because of heightened sensitivities in the current political culture.


When researchers controlled for the motivation to suppress prejudice, they found the less stereotypical faces led to perceptions of greater STEM ability.

“We think it may demonstrate that some level of awareness about biases exist, and individuals are capable of altering their actions,” according to Hebl. “Whether it is political correctness, a true change of heart, or something in between, a change in behavior is possible.”


Read the full study HERE or in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


It's even more important that we encourage our children to believe in themselves and their potential as the fact is their facing an uphill journey where they will need to be confident in their ability to prove themselves regardless of the presumptions and prejudices they may encounter.




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