The Effects of Gender Stereotypic and Counter-Stereotypic Textbook Images on Science Performance

Female students perform better in science when the images in their textbooks include women scientists.


In order to address the gap in science achievement between male and female high school students, the authors of this study consider the impact of the pictures of scientists in science textbooks. This study follows previous research on stereotype threat in which women perform more poorly on math and science tasks when aware of negative stereotypes about women in STEM fields. The authors devise an experiment to test male and female high school students’ performance in a chemistry lesson when that lesson is presented with images of only female scientists, only male scientists, or an even mixture of male and female scientists. The students were randomly assigned to one of those three conditions, and after they completed the lesson, they were tested on their comprehension of the chemistry material presented. They also completed questionnaires about their interest in science careers, their interest in non-science careers, and their current level of anxiety. The authors compared the male and female students’ results under each of the three conditions controlling for their relative interest or disinterest in science.


Female 9th and 10th grade students showed higher comprehension of a chemistry lesson when that lesson included images of women scientists than they did when the lesson included images of male scientists.   

  • Female students scored significantly higher on the comprehension test when exposed to counter-stereotypic images of female scientists -- a score of 9.38 correct answers out of a possible 12. When exposed to stereotypic images of male scientists, they scored an average of 7.42 out of 12.  
  • Male students showed the opposite results, averaging scores of 9 out of a possible 12 when their lesson included stereotype-confirming images of male scientists and 7.70 when their lesson included counter-stereotypic images of female scientists. This difference is sizable but doesn’t meet the criteria for statistical significance.
  • In the mixed-image condition – when students were exposed to images of both male and female scientists – there were no significant differences between male and female students’ comprehension test scores.
  • Students’ anxiety levels were not meaningfully correlated with their genders or which types of images appeared in their lesson texts, in contrast to the authors’ expectations.
  • Similarly, the degree of interest that students reported in science as an academic subject or future career field did not impact comprehension scores.

In short, stereotype threat can negatively impact female students’ performance in science by means of textbook images that reinforce gender stereotypes. Using pictures of both female and male scientists leads to closing the gender gap in performance between boys and girls.


This study used three different versions of a chemistry lesson on chemical reactions and equations.  The text was taken from a high school chemistry textbook and was identical in all three versions, but the images of scientists in the texts were altered to fit the stereotypic (all male scientists) counter-stereotypic (all female scientists) and mixed (an even mix of male and female scientists) conditions.  The lessons were presented along with a comprehension test, an anxiety inventory, and a survey assessing interest in various academic and career fields, to a group of 81 9th and 10th grade students (29 male and 52 female, ranging in age from 13-17) who had not previously taken a chemistry course or had any instruction in chemical reactions.  The lesson and test material was distributed in unmarked envelopes by the students’ regular science teachers, and the students were randomly assigned to one of the three experimental conditions based on which envelope they received.  The students read the directions for the study, took the survey on academic and career interests, then read the chemistry lesson.  They then completed the comprehension test, anxiety inventory, and a second survey on academic and career interests.  Finally, they completed a manipulation check, which tested whether they could recall the images that were in their test.

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