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New Study Ponders the Effect of Professors' Gender on Students' Success in Science

May 18, 2009

Female students — or, more specifically, female Air Force cadets — are more likely to succeed in introductory-level science courses if those courses are taught by female professors, according to a study by a trio of economists.

The researchers examined the academic records of every student who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy from 2000 to 2008 — more than 9,000 students in all. They found that women, and especially those with high mathematics-SAT scores, performed significantly better in introductory science courses if the courses were taught by women. Over all, the study found, “having a female professor reduces the gender gap in course grades by approximately two-thirds.”

The economists also wondered whether having female professors in introductory-level courses would affect students’ odds of eventually graduating with a science major. Among female students as a whole, the team found no such effect. But among female students with math-SAT scores above 700 — in other words, exactly those who might be likeliest to succeed in science — the study found a strong professor-gender effect.

The study estimates that female students with strong math skills were 26 percentage points more likely to graduate with a science major if all of their intro-level science professors were women than if all of their intro-level science professors were men.

And was there a reverse effect? Did male students abandon science if their intro-level science courses were taught by women? Apparently not. For male students of all abilities, the study did not find any significant professor-gender effects.

You might wonder how safe it is to generalize those findings across higher education, given the Air Force Academy’s military culture and its fraught history of gender politics.

Those are legitimate concerns. But the authors of the paper argue that the academy is unusually fertile ground for a study like this: All of its students are required to take a sequence of introductory science courses, the design of those courses is highly standardized, and students cannot choose which sections they will enroll in.

Because of that uniformity, the study was able to avoid some of the complications that often make it difficult to interpret classroom data. (At a typical college, the researchers would have had to ponder whether the most highly motivated female science students were sorting themselves into class sections taught by female professors.)

The paper’s authors are Scott E. Carrell, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Davis; Marianne E. Page, a professor of economics at Davis; and James E. West, a professor of economics at the Air Force Academy. The paper, which was released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, has not yet been peer-reviewed for publication. —David Glenn