University of Colorado college physics course. A persistent gender gap: the girls get worse test scores than the boys, and end up with lower grades at the end of the semester.
The teachers have tried various things to fix it – extra tutorials, etc. – but none worked.
Until one surprising intervention made the difference. From Discover Magazine,

“Researcher Akira Miyake recruited 283 men and 116 women who were taking part in the university’s 15-week introductory course to physics. He randomly divided them into two groups. One group picked their most important values from a list and wrote about why these mattered to them. The other group — the controls — picked their least important values and wrote about why these might matter to other people.
“This happened twice at the start of the course, and the whole thing was led by teaching assistants who didn’t know what was going on (it was a double-blind experiment). They, and the students, were all told that the exercise was meant to improve writing skills.
“During the rest of the semester, the students sat for four exams that made up most of their final grade. Among the control group, who wrote about other people’s values, men outperformed women by an average of ten percentage points. But among the students who affirmed their own values, the gender gap largely disappeared. Their final grades reflected this shrunken divide: if the women took Miyake’s exercise, far more got Bs and far fewer got Cs.
Miyake also gave the students a standard test called the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), which checks their understanding of basic physics concepts. In Miyake’s control group, the men outscored the women, as they usually do. But the women who wrote about their values closed the gap entirely.”

Wow. The complex, intractable science gender gap…the thing that is born of years of conditioning, the thing we keep debating nature vs. nurture about – was erased because of 30 minutes of writing – and writing that had nothing to do with physics?
Remarkably, this study was modeled after another one that showed that the grades of black students improved after they did the writing drill – and their grades were still lifted (relative to the control group) two years later.
As a coach, every day I see the power of people clarifying and connecting to their values, reconnecting to what is important to them. I’ve seen that it brings them energy, clarity, a kind of peace, and a lot of joy. But it turns out it really effects performance too.
In the academic world, these experiments fall under a domain of research about “stereotype threat” – which is this: the culture has a stereotype (i.e. women aren’t as good as men at science) and then women internalize that stereotype, and either 1) hold that belief about themselves, which then affects their performance or 2) are afraid of confirming the stereotype through their own mistakes/poor performance, and therefore experience a lot of extra stress in doing the task, which creates poor performance. I’ve personally felt both of these – and I’m guessing you have too.
Researchers look at the writing exercise as a kind of “psychological shield” against stereotype threat. Women who believed that men were better than women at physics most benefited from the exercise – their grades showed the biggest change. Researches haven’t yet identified exactly why the writing exercise functions this way, but I would say its some combination of:
1) The writing exercise helps you disidentify with the stereotyped group, and conceptualize yourself as an individual — thereby distancing yourself from the stereotype
2) By putting your attention on the things that are important to you, you shift your energy out of fear/stress and into centeredness, inspiration, and even love.
3) You literally connect to yourself, and when we do that, our natural intelligence and abilities flow forth.
This study illustrates so beautifully one of my most deeply held convictions: to do great things in the world, we need a combination of inner work and worldly work. Frankly, that’s what I’m most excited about in my new women’s leadership program, Playing Big, and what I think is most pioneering about it – the fusion of inner work and outer work.
We have to be in the right energetic place, inwardly, to do remarkable things. We have to have cleared the cobwebs of fears and negative beliefs about ourselves – and rooted ourselves in our authentic passions.
But we also need the “outer work” – the skills training. We need to know skills that allow us to use our genius effectively in the world. Only taking the physics class (just doing the wordly work part) left women underperforming men, and literally disconnected from their own brilliance. But if they had just spent time writing about their values, without taking a physics class, those women wouldn’t have the impact they want to have as doctors and scientists.
So here’s the headline: you can dramatically impact your abilities by connecting to yourself. I mean geez, it lifts physics test scores — can’t get much more concrete results than that.
Take fifteen minutes and write about your most important values and what is important to you about them. Do it twice over the next couple weeks. See what happens.
More broadly, notice in your life, how fear of poor performance, or negative beliefs about yourself, literally disconnects you from your own voice and your own brilliance. And develop some simple practices that help you click right back in to the heart of you.
p.s. COME JOIN ME for Playing Big, a women’s leadership/change-the-world/share-your-voice experience that will change your life. I promise.