What is STEM?
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathmatics.
What’s the problem?
STEM fields are still disproportionately dominated by men. Women only hold about 25% of the jobs in this growing field (Beede et al., 2011), and the women who do hold these jobs tend to have poorer retention rates and hold fewer leadership positions (Glass et al, 2013). This is an important problem to find solutions to for two reasons. First of all, women are missing out on a lot of influential and highly paid jobs, and second of all, STEM is missing out on viewpoints and ideas from women.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
One theory that can explain the lack of women is Cognitive Dissonance Theory, which states that a cognitive inconsistency is produced when internalized stereotypes conflict with personal beliefs or positive self-image (Steele & Liu, 1983). In other words, negative stereotype about your group can conflict with positive feelings about yourself. For example, if a girl simultaneously believes that “math is for boys” (a cultural stereotype that she may have internalized) and that “I am good at math,” she would be experiencing cognitive dissonance. This can produce feelings of anxiety, which can impair performance and actually confirm the stereotype. This phenomenon is known as Stereotype Threat.
Stereotype threat can be enacted when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their group before taking a test. For example, informing participants that males generally perform better on math tests before administering one may cause female participants to under-perform. Sometimes it’s even enough to remind participants that they belong to a group that there are negative stereotypes about, without even explicitly mentioning the stereotype, like marking down your sex before taking the test. In addition to underperforming, girls may adjust their attitude toward STEM to be more negative in order to avoid this cognitive dissonance.
The goal of an intervention based on Cognitive Dissonance Theory would be to allow girls to have a positive attitude toward STEM without inducing cognitive dissonance. This could be accomplished by reducing stereotypes of scientists that are incompatible with femininity or femaleness in general. For example, computer scientists are often stereotyped as solely computer-focused and lacking in interpersonal skills, which conflicts with the expectation that women are social and people-oriented (Cheryan et al., 2013). When female students learn that this stereotype is no longer true, they are more likely to report an interest in the subject.
Social Identity Theory
Another theory that can be applied to this issue is Social Identity Theory, which states that people seek to define their own group as opposed to other out-groups, and conform to the characteristics of their group (Hogg & Terry, 2000). Girls may not see interest or skill in STEM subjects as characteristic of their gender group and be discouraged from pursuing these subjects. The goal of an intervention based on Social Identity Theory would be to create the impression that an interest in STEM fields is characteristic of the group they belong to, thereby increasing interest.
Instead of choosing between these two theories, my intervention is designed to test the point of contention between them, to see which one is more applicable. It involves a day-long program for middle school girls designed to increase girls’ interest in science. There will be one control condition and two experimental conditions. In the control condition, the program will not focus on gender, and will include talks by male and female scientists about their careers, male and female college students talking about their educational experiences, and hands-on science activities. One experimental condition will focus on changing stereotypes about scientists that are incompatible with being female, and will include non-stereotypical scientists and college students of both genders talking about their experiences, with many mentions of the fact that traditional stereotypes are no longer accurate. The second experimental condition will focus on increasing the perception of women in science, and will include only female presenters, with many mentions of their female colleagues and mentors, and of the fact that science is no longer a “boys’ club”
The study will use a pretest-post test design using two scales developed by Weisgram and Bigler (2006). The first scale will measure egalitarianism (the belief that science is equally appropriate for both men and women), utility (the belief in the usefulness of science) and self-efficacy in science. The second will measure interest in science.
Why this intervention?
In addition to increasing the interest in science of the participants in the study, the results will help us design more effective interventions in the future. This is a large and complex issue, and it is important that we begin to understand the mechanisms that are keeping the gender ratio in STEM fields so skewed. Armed with this information, it will be much easier to take on this issue and create real, lasting change.
Beede, D., Julian, T., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Kahn, B., & Doms, M. (2011). Women in STEM: a gender gap to innovation. U. S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/reports/documents/womeninstemagaptoinnovation8311.pdf
Hogg, M., & Terry, J. (2000). Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts. The Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 121-140.
Glass, J., Sassler, S., levitte, Y., Michelmore, K. (2013). What’s so special about STEM? A comparison of women’s retention in STEM and professional occupations. Social Forces.
Steele, M., & Liu, T. (1983). Dissonance processes as self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 5-19.
Weisgram, E. S., & Bigler, R. S. (2006). Girls and science careers: The role of altruistic values and attitudes about scientific tasks. Journal Of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27(4), 326-348.
BostInno (2013). Retrieved from http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2013/08/24/olin-college-class-of-2017-women-in-stem/.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/women.
Women in Bio (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.womeninbio.org/ywib/.
Stockbyte (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.psmag.com/education/making-science-girl-friendly-pays-gender-dividends-33777/.