25 August 2023

Are male students more talented?


In the sciences, talented students are perceived as those who ask quirky questions and are confident and playful. But is the deck stacked in such a way that those who are already privileged win? Men are the ones who most frequently fall into the talented category, according to University of Copenhagen researchers who looked at how talent is perceived among lecturers and students in the sciences.

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Women students are organized, diligent and whizzes at Excel. But the talents are laid-back, playful, confident and fire off quirky questions. And these are typically male students. It’s a widely held perception across natural science programmes according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.

In their study, the researchers interviewed lecturers and students from four different natural science programmes to find out how they defined student talent.

"Students who are well-prepared and meet learning objectives, but do so in a way that their lecturers don't find as exciting as when they are asked golden and quirky questions, are typically not recognized as talented. While appreciated as diligent, they are largely invisible," states Henriette Holmegaard, an associate professor at the Department of Science Education and one of the two researchers behind the study. The study has been published in the book Science Identities.

According to the researchers, a sorting mechanism is at play during teaching, where students are divided into those with and without talent – a mechanism with a gendered bias. This means that more female than male students are seen as lacking the 'right stuff’.

"Lecturers report that when students ask questions, some of the men’s questions are simply much more exciting than those of the women. And if the women try, they risk being considered unauthentic or strategic – as if it was not natural for them to do so," says Bjørn Friis Johannsen, a former researcher at the Department of Science Education, now at University College Copenhagen.

According to the researchers, male students are more likely to be perceived as brave and curious 'artists' – whereas women are perceived as fragile 'organisers'. One male lecturer in the study put it this way:

 “Many of the girls keep from going for the Ph.D. because it overwhelms them. I mean, they become paralyzed with stress because they’re so dutiful. But Christ they are a bunch of good girls to bring on a fieldtrip to make databases and such. But they refrain from thinking new and exciting thoughts and from writing papers because they say ‘But it stresses me out right away’.”

A stacked deck

The researchers see a major problem with perceptions like the ones exemplified in the quote above. Not least because one is dealing with the opaque expectations of students:

"It's unfair because we outline sets of rules and goals while rewarding other types of behaviour. Besides grades, there are many other ways of bestowing privilege upon students. These can include more time with lecturers, invitations to participate in research projects, student assistant work or even an appreciative nod during a lecture," says Bjørn Friis Johannsen.

And, not all students have equal opportunities to live up to the expectations of such behaviour:

"In a way, there's a hidden curriculum. If we expect students to be able to do these things on their own, some will do so, while others fall by the wayside. Therefore, there is both a gender and social bias in not highlighting them. Those who are able to identify the implicit frameworks ahead of time can navigate and benefit from them. So, there’s a sense that the deck is stacked," says Henriette Holmegaard.

As a result, the researchers conclude that those who are already the most privileged, with regards to gender, social class and race, gain favour and even more privilege.

"Asking a quirky question in class requires that a student summon more courage than their peers. Some students experience risk in saying what comes to mind – and in our study this interacted with gender. For example, the risk of being seen as someone with nothing sensible to offer. Not everyone feels comfortable being the one to share quirky thoughts and questions," says Henriette Holmegaard.

Could it be that most men simply have character traits that are well suited to the sciences?

"The problem is precisely this myth that science is best done in such a way that parallels the way most male students are. The faculty we spoke with say that when you're on the hunt for talent, you're looking for people like yourself. But does it need to be the case that these 'boyish behaviours' are the most important qualities to have in order to be a good student?" questions Bjørn Friis Johannsen, adding:

"Male lecturers in the natural sciences seem to reproduce themselves when they privilege certain types of student behaviour – because according to our research, this is what these perceptions of talent lead to. And this is regardless of whether the lecturers are any good at science or not."

Recruit people with the right experience

The researchers believe that a broader framework for lecture participation should be created to help more students spread their wings and realise their potential.

"We need to open our eyes to the fact that talent comes in many forms and expresses itself in a myriad of ways. Just because some students are quieter than others during lectures and don't ask the most challenging questions doesn't mean they lack talent. There could be a lot of potential that we’re just not seeing," says Henriette Holmegaard. 

According to Bjørn Friis Johannsen, it is about creating an awareness and breaking any unfortunate patterns that may exist, while at the same time broadening the search when recruiting staff.

"In practical terms, one can begin by hiring people who are experienced at dealing with marginalization, in the belief that by doing so, one can create a better research and teaching environment with lower drop-out rates, better recruitment and general improvements with regards to how things are run," he says and concludes:

"However, managerial and political backup is needed. Especially if the aim is to increase the number of women and increase diversity more generally in the STEM fields. Since I’m hesitant individualising talent with the students, I hesitate individualising the problem of talent with the faculty. To me, the problem comes from the way university is ‘done’.”


Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard
Associate Professor
Department of Science Education
University of Copenhagen
+45 35 32 03 86

Bjørn Friis Johannsen
Department of Teacher Education
University College Copenhagen
+45 29 44 05 04

Maria Hornbek
Faculty of Science
University of Copenhagen
+45 22 95 42 83


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