Women in engineering engage best with gender parity

From Science News, April 6, 2015

Even when a woman is confident in her abilities, it can be a chilling experience to be the only woman in the room. Suddenly her voice sounds higher in her ears. She begins to worry she’ll be talked over. And in male-dominated careers, it might end up meaning a woman never speaks up in the first place.

In some situations, it really does help to have other women around. A new study finds that gender parity in small group settings helps young women engineers feel more confident as they pursue a challenge. When the group is mostly female, women will speak out and share their opinions. The results are small step toward identifying more interventions that help women stay in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. But how much interventions like these might solve the problem of gender imbalance in STEM remains to be seen.

“We’ve been talking about the problem of the gender gap and pipeline in STEM for a long time,” says study coauthor Nilanjana Dasgupta, an experimental social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “But I didn’t think there was enough attention being given to evidence-based interventions.”

Women make up only 18 percent of undergraduate engineering majors, and 23 percent of engineering graduate students. Dasgupta was interested in finding out how to retain more women — especially first-year women — in undergraduate engineering programs.

So she engineered a scenario. She asked 120 female engineering majors at the University of Massachusetts to complete what they were told was a task on group problem-solving. One-third of the women worked in a four-person group where they were the only woman. Another third were assigned to a group of two men and one other woman. The final third of the women worked in groups with only one man. After the women met their fellow groupmates for a few minutes, the participants went to individual cubicles, where they received the group problem and worked on it briefly on their own. They also filled our surveys rating their anxiety, their intention to pursue an engineering career and whether they felt challenged or threatened by the upcoming task.

After some time alone, the participants met their groups again. Unbeknownst to the participants, the other three members of the group were research assistants following a scripted series of interactions. As the group solved the problems together, the research assistants allowed plenty of time for the study volunteers to speak up. Afterward, the assistants rated each participant on how much they participated in the problem solving, how helpful the participant’s suggestions were, how confident she was in her solutions and how interested and comfortable she seemed working with the group.

When interacting with groups in which they were the only woman, the participants — especially first-year students — were more likely to perceive the upcoming group work as a threat. When there was another women present or a female majority, the participants felt more confident. When the groups were 50 or 75 percent women, the participants also reported that they were more likely to continue on in engineering. But feeling confident and participating in group problem-solving isn’t quite the same thing. Even in groups with gender parity, the women tested did not actually verbally participate more than if they were in the minority. In fact, the participants spoke up only when the group was 75 percent women. Dasgupta and her groups report the findings April 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I think we need more work like this,” says Zahra Hazari, an education researcher at Florida International University in Miami. She says she “really appreciate[s] evidence of what does and doesn’t work” to retain women in STEM careers.

At the same time, there’s more work that needs to be done to understand the group dynamics most likely to encourage women in science and engineering. “When these kinds of studies come out, people have a tendency to generalize them to everything,” Hazari explains. This study is specific to women who have already chosen engineering, she notes, so the participants probably place more importance on a sense of belonging.

And, she says, the positive effect could be negative if you get paired with the wrong person in a general science course. “A woman might get paired with another woman, and if they both hate science they might just depress each other,” she says.

Dasgupta and her colleagues frame the results as a form of “social vaccine,” where a good experience within a group could “inoculate” women in engineering against the noxious stereotypes that might contribute to feeling isolated and unwelcome. But it’s hard to tell how much a single interaction or single small group experience could aid young female engineers in months and years later. Consider a woman taking four classes in engineering and getting this type of positive social experience in one class, says Andrew Penner, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. “Does this make a difference in one class? In other classes? Could other classes overwhelm the ‘inoculation’ provided by one class?”

A scripted interaction in the lab is very different from an unscripted group setting in a classroom. “The emphasis on understanding confidence and whether [students] can see themselves becoming STEM professionals is very helpful,” Penner says. But in the real world, “if you change the gender representation in a homework group, there may be other things that change as a result. It could be an even more supportive group, or maybe there’s one domineering guy and it ends up not helping at all.” The study groups were also small. Larger groups could have different dynamics, and the effects might not scale up from four to groups of 100 or more in an introductory engineering class. And of course, there is no telling whether well-balanced groups would have the same effect on other minority groups in engineering or other fields.

The results don’t offer a single solution to improve the representation of women and under-represented minorities in STEM, and there’s unlikely to ever be one single solution anyway. But the study does suggest that female peers can help protect women’s confidence in fields such as engineering, which tends to be male-dominated. And in a man’s world, speaking out might be a little easier when there are more people around who look like you.

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