MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
We're going to spend some time now finding out how preconceptions shape the way men and women communicate and work together. NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is going to tell us about that.
And, Shankar, I understand you have a question for me, first off.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I do, Melissa. Do you remember everything you did last week?
BLOCK: I can't even remember what I did this morning much less last week. But thanks for asking.
VEDANTAM: Well, so it turns out that most of us remember just the highlights of things that happen to us. We don't remember 90 percent of what actually goes on. And psychologists think that this 90 percent, this background stuff, is really important because it's the stuff of our lives.
I went out to Tucson to talk with a psychologist who's developed a way to get at this background stuff. He's developed this audio recorder that turns itself on and off all day long.
MATTHIAS MEHL: We program the device to record for 30 seconds every 12 minutes. That gives you about five sound bites per hour, or 70 sound bites per day.
VEDANTAM: That's Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona. The device captures the minute details of peoples' lives. Now, Mehl can share the recordings from studies because of research confidentiality. But I've seen how the device works. You get these disjointed audio fragments.
Mehl told me that when he studies them closely, patterns emerge. They challenge people's assumptions, like the stereotype about how much men and women like to talk.
MEHL: This stereotype transcends cultures. You find it here. I'm from Germany, we found it in Germany. My wife is from Mexico, we found it in Mexico.
VEDANTAM: In fact, the stereotype's so ubiquitous, it's generated numbers. Men supposedly speak only 7,000 words a day. Women supposedly speak 45,000 words a day. You've probably heard jokes about it. This one goes back to a time when most American women were housewives.
MEHL: Man comes home after work, the wife welcomes the man. And the man, at work, has used about 6,900 of those 7,000 available words. And the woman welcomes the man with the 45,000 words left over.
VEDANTAM: This is where it's powerful to study the details of how people talk. Mehl stuck his recorder on a large number of men and women. He counted the words they spoke. And...
MEHL: We found surprisingly there was zero difference.
VEDANTAM: The stereotype was wrong. Both men and women speak about 17,000 words a day, give or take a few hundred. Mehl recently decided to use the recorder to study a different aspect of sexism: The role of women in science.
Walk into most technology companies or college science departments, and you'll notice fewer women than men writing code and teaching math. The gender disparity in certain fields of science has long been a concern.
DR. SHIRLEY MALCOM: We don't have women choosing to go into fields such as physics, computer science and engineering.
VEDANTAM: That's Shirley Malcom, a biologist who heads education programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. On the Internet, along with jokes about how many words men and women speak each day, you'll find lots of explanations for the disparity: Women aren't interested in math, women drop out to have babies, or, as former Harvard President Larry Summers once suggested: women's brains are different from men's brains.
Mehl and a colleague, Toni Schmader at the University of British Columbia, honed in on one important aspect of the disparity. Schmader said it wasn't just that fewer women go into science, technology, engineering and math...
TONI SCHMADER: Once they're there, they tend to drop out at higher rates than their male peers. As women enter into careers, the levels of advancement aren't as steep for women as for men.
VEDANTAM: The psychologists decided to study why women, accomplished scientists at a top-tier university, often found themselves disengaged in their work. They had male and female scientists wear the audio recorders and go about their work. There was a pattern in the way professors talk to one another. When male scientists talk to other scientists about their research, it energized them. But it was a different story for women.
SCHMADER: For women, the pattern was just the opposite, specifically in their conversations with male colleagues. So the more women in their conversations with male colleagues were talking about research, the more disengaged they reported being in their work.
VEDANTAM: Disengagement predicts someone's at risk of dropping out. There was another sign of trouble. When female scientists talk to other female scientists, they sounded perfectly competent. But when they talk to male colleagues, they sounded less competent. One explanation was that the men were being nasty to their female colleagues, throwing them off their game.
Mehl and Schmader checked the tapes.
SCHMADER: We don't have any evidence that there is anything that men are saying to make this happen.
VEDANTAM: But there was a clue in the audiotapes about what was going on. When the male and female scientists were not talking about work, the women felt more engaged. For the psychologist, this was the smoking gun that an insidious psychological phenomenon was at work. It has a name.
SCHMADER: Stereotype Threat.
MEHL: Stereotype Threat.
VEDANTAM: Stereotype Threat's a phenomenon where people, worried about a stereotype, act in ways that make the stereotype self-fulfilling. Take the stereotype that girls aren't as good as boys at math. Remind children about that stereotype and girls will perform measurably worse on a math test. Schmader said the same psychological process was at work, when male and female scientists talked about their research.
SCHMADER: For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks that it's possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she's saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she's sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she's confirming the stereotype.
VEDANTAM: All this is distracting. It uses up brainpower. The worst part...
SCHMADER: By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent.
VEDANTAM: Mehl and Schmader think that when female scientists talked to male colleagues about research, it brings the stereotype about men, women in science to the surface. When the female scientists talk to men about leisure activities, it didn't activate the stereotype. It wasn't that women like to talk only about their weekends and personal lives. When the women talk to other women about science, the stereotype again wasn't activated.
It was the combination: women talking to men and women and men talking about science that activated the Stereotype Threat. Now, if you tell most scientists about this, they'll say they don't believe the stereotype about women in science, so it won't affect them.
But the psychological study show people are affected by Stereotype Threat regardless of whether they believe the stereotype. Take Mehl. He knows all about Stereotype Threat. He studies it for a living. It affects even him. Remember he told us he's German and that his wife is from Mexico? The stereotype that affects Mehl has to do with dancing.
MEHL: When I go dancing in Mexico, the stereotype of Germans not being good dancers is very salient. So I find myself much more aware of the way I dance when I dance among a group of Latinos, compared to when I dance among a group of Germans.
VEDANTAM: And you think that you dance less well in one context.
MEHL: It's well possible that it undermines my performance.
VEDANTAM: Mehl has tried to fight the stereotype.
MEHL: What takes place is really mostly in my head. Guess what? The Latinos around me don't really care about how I dance.
VEDANTAM: Mehl and Schmader's study suggest that gender disparity in science and technology may be a vicious cycle. When women look at tech companies and math departments, they see few women. This activates the stereotype that women aren't good at math. The stereotype, Toni Schmader says, makes it harder for women to enter those fields, to stay, to thrive.
SCHMADER: If people like me aren't represented in this field, then it makes me feel like it's a bad fit, like I don't belong here.
VEDANTAM: Shirley Malcom, at the science association, calls it a chicken and egg problem.
MALCOM: The fact that there are maybe small numbers in some areas keeps the numbers down.
VEDANTAM: When Microsoft founder Bill Gates visited Saudi Arabia a few years ago, he was asked what that country should do to become a leader in technology. Gates said, referring to women, if you're not utilizing half the talent in your country, you're not going to get too close to the top. That's also a challenge for many math departments and tech companies right here in the United States.
Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can learn more about how Stereotype Threat influences performance, that's at npr.org. And if you want to talk directly to Shankar, he is on Twitter, @hiddenbrain.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.