Feature Stories

STEMing the Tide

Researcher discovers remedies to prevent attrition of girls and women from STEM
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“There’s been enormous public interest in identifying the leaky pipeline problem and its impact on the U.S. workforce, but far less attention has been paid to identifying and testing effective interventions that can solve the problem.”

–Nilanjana Dasgupta

Nilanjana (Buju) Dasgupta was drawn to the study of social inequality because of an interest in investigating its causes, and designing effective remedies using rigorous scientific methods. In particular, she’s interested in implicit bias—the automatic assumptions we make about groups of people without our realizing it.

“Implicit biases are shaped by societal stereotypes or expectations about groups of people: who do we assume is dangerous, who is safe; who is smart, who is not; who is rational, who is emotional,” explains Dasgupta, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of Faculty Equity and Inclusion at the UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences. “These assumptions are oftentimes unspoken and held in mind without awareness. They may ‘leak out’ in our actions and silently distort our judgments of, and behavior toward, others. Most of us hold them, to one degree or another.”

One thread of Dasgupta’s research looks at how implicit bias exacerbates a problem with significant implications for academia, the American workforce, and U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. Called the “leaky pipeline,” it leads many girls and women to shy away from STEM fields or leave these fields prematurely, often despite good performance. While women now account for half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., they tend to cluster in certain disciplines, such as biological sciences. In other majors, including computer science, physics, and engineering, women account for just 15 to 20 percent of undergraduate degrees; the figures are even lower for women of color. After college these gender disparities grow wider: while women make up 47 percent of the overall workforce, they account for just 25 percent of computer and mathematical scientists, 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers, and 13 percent of engineers. (Sources: National Science Foundation; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

For the past ten years, Dasgupta has tackled the leaky pipeline issue in a range of research projects, all funded by the NSF. She studies whether girls and women internalize societal stereotypes, and whether this internalization affects their academic and professional pathways from adolescence through adulthood. “I think of implicit bias as an equal opportunity virus that gets in all of our heads—women or men, black or white,” she says. “It not only influences how we judge other people based on their group membership, but it also influences what we think we ourselves are capable of—or not—in our own careers.”

Dasgupta is particularly interested in finding and testing effective remedies that are grounded in solid science. “There’s been enormous public interest in identifying the leaky pipeline problem and its impact on the U.S. workforce, but far less attention has been paid to identifying and testing effective interventions that can solve the problem,” she says.

In her research, Dasgupta tests a range of factors—the influence of teachers, professors, and peers; the effects of teaching styles and classroom dynamics—to determine which bolster women’s confidence, interest, and career aspirations in STEM, and which have no effect, or even a negative effect. Her team, which includes graduate students and postdocs, employs various types of research methodologies. Sometimes they conduct longitudinal field experiments that introduce a specific intervention in students’ lives; the researchers then follow the students over the course of a semester, a year, or their entire undergraduate careers to test if that intervention has any effect, and, if so, how long that effect endures. Dasgupta’s team also conducts short lab experiments in which students are placed in specific situations—for instance, assigned to various types of work teams—and then observed to determine whether their behavior changes as a result.

While her work continues, after a decade of research, Dasgupta has identified a number of interventions that can help retain women in STEM. They include:

#1: Make sure female students in STEM classes encounter examples of women scientists, engineers, and technology innovators.

If female students hear about scientists and engineers who are women through their STEM courses—through anecdotes professors share in class or brief biographical inserts in their readings—it keeps them motivated and interested in pursuing STEM careers. “Absent these examples, most students assume that scientists and engineers whose discoveries they learn about in class are men,” Dasgupta notes. Reminders of women in the field can go a long way to dispelling that assumption.

#2) When possible, have more female professors or graduate teaching assistants teaching entry-level, or “gateway,” classes.

Female students taught by female professors, Dasgupta's research shows, exhibit more confidence in their STEM abilities and indicate more interest in STEM careers than women with male professors.

In classroom observations, Dasgupta’s research team found no difference in male and female professors’ treatment of students—for instance, whom they called on. “But there was a difference in student participation, and whom students approached after class as the semester progressed,” she notes. While at the beginning of the semester, women students spoke up in class, answered questions posed by male and female professors equally, and approached professors of both genders equally, by the end they were more likely both to approach and to answer questions asked by female professors. “For beginning courses in STEM fields where the students are overwhelmingly male and the professors are overwhelmingly male, having some female professors or teaching assistants can keep female students more engaged,” Dasgupta says.

#3: Match female students in male-dominated fields with peer mentors who are women.

In another study, Dasgupta looked at the effect of trained peer mentors on first-year female engineering students at UMass. Incoming students in one group were assigned female college seniors in the same major as mentors. A second group was matched with male mentors, while a third received no mentoring.

Students with female mentors did better on a number of measures. “They felt they belonged in engineering more, they felt more confident about their abilities, and their interest in pursuing engineering careers and graduate degrees increased,” Dasgupta says. By the end of the year, 100 percent of women with female mentors were still in the major, while only 82 percent of those with male mentors, and 89 percent of those with no mentors, were.

Even after the mentorship ended, the research found, women who’d had same-sex mentors continued to show higher levels of confidence and more interest in engineering careers—a long-term beneficial effect that Dasgupta likens to a “social vaccine.”

#4: Make sure that student work groups are at least 50 percent female.

Much work in the sciences is done in teams, and the gender balance of those teams has significant consequences for its female members, Dasgupta found.

In research that looked at student teams in engineering, women who were the sole female members of their teams spoke less, felt more anxious about teamwork, and less confident in their abilities. But on teams with at least 50 percent women, “the dynamics were totally different,” she notes. “Now they were more engaged, they felt less worried, they spoke up more, and they left the group feeling that they wanted to pursue engineering careers.” In groups with 75 percent women, female students fared even better in terms of their willingness to speak up. My suggestion to faculty teaching team-based learning classes in science, engineering, or computing is ensure that women in your classes can see others like themselves on their team.”

#5: Timing matters.

Girls and women are particularly vulnerable to attrition from STEM at developmental transition points—when they move from middle to high school, high school to college, college to the workforce—due to anxiety about new environments and worries about whether they will fit in. So it’s important to employ interventions designed to retain them at those times. Dasgupta has found, for example, that the benefits of student work teams that are at least half female are stronger for first-years than for older female students. Similarly, the benefit of having a same-sex peer mentor is particularly important in the first year of college.

A former fellow in the UMass Amherst Public Engagement Project, which supports faculty in bringing their research to the public, Dasgupta often presents her work to audiences who can shape the future for girls and women in STEM: K-12 teachers and school administrators, university faculty and administrators, policymakers on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill, and tech companies in Silicon Valley. “I want to take the research back to the public, the people who train and hire the next generation, and those who make decisions that can either remedy or exacerbate inequalities, with the hope that they use our data to inform their teaching practices and policy decisions,” she says.

You can follow Professor Dasgupta on twitter @Dasgupta_Psych or contact her at dasgupta@psych.umass.edu.

Maureen Turner