Promising intervention for girls in STEM? Teams with a critical mass of women lets them ‘lean in’

It’s a hot topic in many countries: how to get more students to choose for STEM-subjects, especially women:

…a research team led by Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reports one promising intervention, based on their research study of 120 undergraduate engineering students. They found among other things that women, particularly first-year students, participate more actively and feel less anxious when they are able to work in small groups or “microenvironments” that are mostly female or that have equal numbers of men and women compared to mostly male groups.

Still, I think it’s not really a solution, as this study is done with students who already chose for engineering… Still the study is relevant for other reasons.

From the press release:

Nilanjana Dasgupta explains, “The important thing we found in this experiment is that even in learning environments where women are a tiny minority, if we can create work teams or learning teams, basically small groups with a high percentage of women, those promote women’s success by reducing worry and anxiety, increasing women willingness to speak up and ‘lean in,’ to use Facebook CEO Cheryl Sandberg’s phrase. This allows women to speak up and not worry what others think, increases confidence about their ability and ultimately lets them aspire to a career in these fields.”

Results of this National Science Foundation-supported study appear today in an early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For this work, the researchers randomly assigned female engineering students to one of three, four-person groups of varying composition, 75 percent, 50 percent, or 25 percent women. Each group had one real study participant, always female, who was unaware that the others were engineering research assistants (RA) trained to behave in a consistent manner. The RAs evaluated the real participants’ verbal behavior in the team.

The participant privately reported her worries, anxieties, confidence in her engineering ability, how visible she felt in the group, and her career aspirations after the team work sessions. Dasgupta and colleagues tested competing hypotheses about which gender mix would benefit women most.

The researchers found that in male-dominated fields like engineering where teamwork is common, the gender composition of small teams plays a major role in women’s success. Having a high concentration of women in engineering teams allows women, particularly first-year students, to participate more actively, shrug off worries, feel confident, and aspire toward engineering careers after the team experience compared to other teams where women were a small minority or the only one.

A second interesting finding is that although teams with equal numbers of men and women reduced women’s worries and anxieties in engineering, they were not sufficient to encourage speaking up. Only in teams with a majority of female peers did women show a substantial uptick in speaking up, the lead author notes. This was true for first-year students as much as for advanced students.

Dasgupta, “My take on these findings is that gender parity helped in some ways, but it couldn’t address all the problems. We often assume that if the playing field is level, with equal numbers of women and men, women will participate. But in fields where strong gender stereotypes already exist, it’s not enough. Overriding gender stereotypes sometimes requires creating ‘microenvironments’ that have more than gender parity. This may involve the occasional experience of working in small teams with a high concentration of female peers that encourage women to jump in, speak up and help their team solve technical problems.”

She adds, “For young women in STEM fields who are a tiny minority in their majors, we need to create work teams or learning teams where they can focus on learning and mastery without worrying about what others think of them. I think these findings have important implication for many male-dominated fields like physical sciences, computing, technology and business. I use engineering as a case in point in this study, but the main take aways can be generalized.”

These results have implications for three key groups, the UMass Amherst researcher says. For educators, “it means when teaching involves team learning, which is a big trend now in K-12, college and beyond, in male-dominated fields, we need to pay attention to team makeup to ensure that women reach their full potential.”

For business managers, “it means they should pay attention to the makeup of their project teams to ensure that female employees’ talents are being used, not lost, and that women feel empowered to speak up.”

For parents, “it means ensuring that their daughters have a critical mass of other girls around them when they are involved in after-school activities and summer programs that focus on science and technology.”

Abstract of the study:

For years, public discourse in science education, technology, and policy-making has focused on the “leaky pipeline” problem: the observation that fewer women than men enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and more women than men leave. Less attention has focused on experimentally testing solutions to this problem. We report an experiment investigating one solution: we created “microenvironments” (small groups) in engineering with varying proportions of women to identify which environment increases motivation and participation, and whether outcomes depend on students’ academic stage. Female engineering students were randomly assigned to one of three engineering groups of varying sex composition: 75% women, 50% women, or 25% women. For first-years, group composition had a large effect: women in female-majority and sex-parity groups felt less anxious than women in female-minority groups. However, among advanced students, sex composition had no effect on anxiety. Importantly, group composition significantly affected verbal participation, regardless of women’s academic seniority: women participated more in female-majority groups than sex-parity or female-minority groups. Additionally, when assigned to female-minority groups, women who harbored implicit masculine stereotypes about engineering reported less confidence and engineering career aspirations. However, in sex-parity and female-majority groups, confidence and career aspirations remained high regardless of implicit stereotypes. These data suggest that creating small groups with high proportions of women in otherwise male-dominated fields is one way to keep women engaged and aspiring toward engineering careers. Although sex parity works sometimes, it is insufficient to boost women’s verbal participation in group work, which often affects learning and mastery.

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