Friday, September 25, 2015

How Gender Stereotypes Constrain Women in STEM

Out of the 196 people who have been Nobel laureates in Physics, how many would you guess are women? Maybe 10 or 20? Try two. How about for Chemistry? Out of the total 166 laureates, only four have been women. Keep in mind that this would be double-counting Marie Courie, who received a Nobel Prize in both. This is just one indicator of the degree of diversity in the science fields. Why is this so and how is it a problem?

Corinne Moss-Racusin, Ph.D. has something to say about these questions, and she did, during this week's HKS WAPPP Seminar. She is currently conducting research on how gender stereotyping is a contributing cause to the under representation of women in STEM fields. Prior to her current work, research had shown that there are problems such as inequitable access to science resources for women, such as lab space, there was experimental evidence of bias in other fields, and there was anecdotal evidence of bias provided by STEM students. However, to provide more conclusive knowledge of the biases in the field, Moss-Racusin and her colleagues conducted experimental studies that provide insightful results.

Dr. Moss-Racusin at the HKS WAPPP Seminar
Her team was the first to run an experimental study about bias in the STEM context. They asked faculty to evaluate identical applications for a research position at a lab and rate them on  their competence, comment on how likely they would be to mentor such an applicant, make a hiring decision, and provide a figure for the salary they would pay the applicant. One group was given applications belonging to a person named "John", and the other group assessed identical applications belonging to a "Jennifer". The study finds no effect of the faculty member's race, field of expertise, gender, or background on the outcome. In contrast, there is a strong effect related to the applicant's gender. "Jennifer" was receiving about $4,000 less in starting salary, was rated as less competent, and was less likely to get mentoring. In other words, women are facing a negative bias, and it comes from men as well as other women. Moss-Racusin explained that this is "likely because we are all equally exposed to the same cultural biases... they might be being enacted by well-meaning individuals, they’re still biased choices”, she concluded.

It seems that we are all equally biased.
Dr. Moss-Racusin's team ran a second experiment. They recruited a group of undergraduate students unfamiliar with the research in this field and presented them with two articles about bias against women in STEM. The articles only differed on the punchline: One said the research showed that there was a bias and the other concluded that there was not. The students' attitudes towards STEM were measured after reading the articles. The researchers found that students presented with evidence of bias reported increased awareness of it, less sense of belonging in a STEM field, and reduced STEM aspirations as compared to their counterparts in the other group. The same results applied for men and women. This means that awareness of the bias seems to deter students from adventuring into the STEM field. What is most worrying, given these results, is that women on average tend to report much higher awareness levels about bias than men. In the real world, their awareness may be deterring them from entering STEM career paths. This is bad news for all because STEM jobs tend to be better paid and there is a predicted shortage of workers for the coming decades.

Finally, Moss-Racusin's research moved into what Professor Hannah Riley-Bowles called "daring" territory for scholars: practice. Looking for a way to improve diversity trainings that have produced mixed results, she partnered with professional filmmakers to create twelve high-quality films that communicated the findings of the latest research on gender bias. She then measured the difference between individuals randomly assigned to view this material versus a control group who was exposed to similar videos but which did not touch on the topic. Her results show that whether it is a narrative film that shows the findings in a story-telling manner, or a documentary-style intellectual approach, there is an effect that the videos can have that increases awareness and reduces gender bias, and it can last at least six months. Worthy of note was that the 'intellectual' format seemed to have a bigger effect, especially when the test subjects were STEM faculty  members.

Why should we care? As was mentioned, a recent White House report predicts that we may need at least a million more STEM majors to respond to the economy's needs. There is a large potential available in the female workforce to supply this expertise, "gender parity really is in the interest of our national competitiveness", as Dr. Moss-Racusin puts it. And moreover, the problem is not fixing itself. Her research finds no cohort effects, which means it is not a generational issue. The under representation of women in this fields is not going away unless we work at it. Finally, research has shown that diverse teams produce better results, so if we do not diversify science, we all stand to lose. 

Check out the event's page to listen to the podcast of the talk and take a look at the presentation that Dr. Moss-Racusin kindly shared with us.

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