Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Role Models as "Social Vaccines"

Do you have everyday role models? Successful people in your field who look like you and aren’t superhuman?

Though I have become comfortable at male-dominated tables, I always look for fellow women in politics. I don’t just mean Hillary Clinton. She certainly inspires me, but she is a super star! It’s the regular women – the chiefs of staff, the policy advisors, and some Members of Congress – that I can look to and think “yeah, that could be me in a few years.”

Nilanjana (Buju) Dasgupta, Professor of Psychology at UMass Amherst, demonstrates that exposure to such role models can act like a “social vaccine” against negative stereotypes. This kind of vaccination by inspiration is especially important for minority groups in high-achievement fields – think women in politics, business, or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

Professor Dasgupta and her team tested the Social Inoculation Model with numerous quasi-experimental studies in the real world. They focused on women in the STEM field, which is increasingly going to drive the economy. In STEM careers, women are both a numeric minority and a group facing negative stereotypes (perceptions that women are bad with numbers, etc).

In one study, unsuspecting college students signed up for a calculus class – a required gateway course for all STEM majors. There were 7 female and 8 male professors teaching 15 sections. The professors were also unaware of the experiment’s hypotheses. They had similar experience levels and teaching styles. The syllabi and tests were the same and the grading was done blindly by all professors across the sections.

Twice during the semester the researchers measured students’ attitudes toward math, their self-confidence with math (what grade they thought they would get), and their personal identification with the professor. They found that the female students taught by male professors were less likely to self-identify with math than did their female peers in the sections taught by female professors. Female students were also found to have negative attitudes toward math in sections taught by men, but not by women.

Women in male-taught sections were less self-confident about their mathematical ability – they estimated a lower final grade than did women in the sections taught by women. It is striking that with their final grades the female students in this study significantly outperformed men, regardless of their professor’s gender.

These women obviously had the aptitude for math, but they doubted their own competence...unless their professor was female.

Professor Dasgupta conducted a number of other studies to test various aspects of her theory, trying to understand the mechanisms by which the “social vaccine” worked. She also looked at effects of peers, exposure to experts through media and the effects of the teacher’s gender on students of younger ages.

Drawing on her experiments and the body of related literature, Professor Dasgupta makes a compelling case that for underrepresented groups in high-achievement fields ability alone is not sufficient to succeed. Exposure to relatable role models can mean the difference between staying in and dropping out.

That is why being able to look around and think “sure, I can do what she does” is so important for me and other professional women outnumbered in their fields. And it is even more important for the young girls considering a career in STEM, politics or business.

Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

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