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Social Vaccine
Female role models help protect women's interest in STEM
UMass Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta in her campus office.

"Increasing the visibility of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, and providing young women who are beginners in these disciplines the opportunity to interact with them in their classroom, profoundly benefits their self perception and confidence in STEM."

-Nilanjana Dasgupta

A 2011 Department of Commerce report shows that women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations. They hold less than a quarter of STEM jobs, suggesting that untapped talents go to waste at a time when we need more skilled people in these fields. New findings by social psychologist Nilanjana Dasgupta, whose research focuses on beliefs and attitudes toward social groups, help explain why women leave STEM fields and, just as important, how institutions may reverse this phenomenon.

Dasgupta’s research concerns the power of our unconscious, implicit stereotypes and prejudices, how they are influenced by subtle bias, and how they affect individuals’ attitudes toward gender and race. Her recent research explores how subtle bias affects individuals’ decisions for themselves, including how cultural forces shape personal choices about our capabilities and the things we enjoy, such as science and mathematics.

While working on a project comparing leadership development among female students at a coeducational college versus a women’s college, Dasgupta stumbled upon a finding that triggered her current research: over time, women taking STEM classes at a coed college who had more male instructors than female were more likely to implicitly buy into negative gender stereotypes than their peers at a women’s college taking similar STEM classes who had roughly equal proportions of male and female instructors. This finding led her to wonder if the gender of instructors would also influence how much women liked math and science classes, how invested they became in these disciplines, and how confident they felt. With support from the National Science Foundation Dasgupta launched an investigation into whether exposure to female scientists and engineers in STEM classes as professors and teaching assistants helps protect women’s interest and motivation in the field.

With colleagues Melinda Novak, psychology, George Avrunin and Arline Norkin, math, and Surita Bhatia, chemical engineering, Dasgupta conducted several lab experiments and field studies with women in STEM majors. She discovered that most women would speak positively about the discipline and indicated in self-report surveys that they planned to remain in the major. Yet on implicit tests that  measured their academic attitudes unobtrusively by asking them to rapidly pair positive and negative words with “calculus,” “algorithm,” “literature,” “poetry,” and so on (words representing math/science vs. humanities), results revealed substantial negative implicit attitudes toward STEM and less of a sense of identification with STEM  among women than that revealed by men.

However, the results looked much more encouraging when women in introductory STEM classes were taught by female instructors. In one study, Dasgupta followed students in calculus sections taught by female faculty and female teaching assistants, and other sections taught by male faculty and male teaching assistants; the course material and exams were identical. She found that exposure to female instructors had a quick and dramatic positive effect on young women’s attitudes toward and confidence in math. According to Dasgupta, increasing the visibility of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, and providing young women who are beginners in these disciplines the opportunity to interact with them in the classroom, profoundly benefits their self-perception and confidence in STEM.

To translate her research into interventions at the institutional level, Dasgupta is collaborating with the campus’s STEM faculty and with administrators to increase the number of female role models in STEM majors. For example, Dasgupta is testing how the ratio of female to male peers in engineering affects students’ engagement and confidence in STEM and is examining the potential benefit of same-sex peer mentors. If Dasgupta’s future data show that peer support is effective in keeping women in the major, she will work with the College of Engineering to develop a peer mentoring program.

Dasgupta is also interested in broadening her research to investigate how the confluence of students’ race/ethnicity and gender jointly affect their sense of belonging in STEM and their motivation to continue in the field. If her work continues to demonstrate that situational factors in the learning environment, rather than innate talent, determine women’s success in math and science, it may point the way to new strategies and programs that colleges and universities can harness to greatly enhance gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and math, in education, and the workplace.

Megan Zinn