Funding agencies spend a great deal of money to try and recruit females into math and science-related careers and a new psychology paper underlines the importance of mentoring and other social support systems for women pursuing those research professions.
Various disciplines within the broad science field have different representation. In academic science, for example, the social fields are overwhelmingly female, the life sciences are about even while the physical sciences are primarily male. Are those differences due to barriers to achievement? If so, women face far fewer obstacles than minorities, Republicans and handicapped people, who have shockingly little representation at the faculty levels compared to women. The cultural struggle remains that STEM is difficult so rather than turning non-smart people into scientists, we may be spending a great deal of money turning women who might otherwise be doctors into scientists.
Mary Jean Amon, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati's psychology program, focuses on women in a small survey: 46 female graduate students working toward STEM careers participating in STEM leadership workshops.
Amon used PhotoVoice, in which participants use photography to detail experiences and express opinions, to gather anecdotes from female graduate students in STEM disciplines.
Three themes that emerged as women examined the effects of gender stereotypes in STEM fields: career strategies, barriers to achievement and buffering strategies.
"Gender stereotypes manifest in a variety of ways in a work environment, such as conflicting role expectations, a lack of authority and a variety of small, interpersonal cues that signal the potential bias against women," writes Amon. "It is common for organizations to promote policies against blatant acts of discrimination and sexual harassment, but it is less common for them to recognize the unconscious acts of bias that frequently occur."
Amon says as a result, the women in the study revealed how they played distinct roles within different contexts, remaining vigilant to cues regarding gender-role expectations.
Participants ranged in age from 21 to 51, with the average age being 29. 64 percent of the study participants were white; 22 percent Asian; 4 percent identified as black; 4 percent Hispanic; 4 percent multiracial and 2 percent Native American. 35 percent of the sample was represented by international students from 11 different countries. 50 percent of the participants were pursuing fields in the natural sciences; 28 percent were studying medicine and health; and 22 percent were pursuing careers in engineering.
Gender stereotypes were identified through discussions involving conflicting role expectations, feelings of a lack of authority and interpersonal cues indicating gender bias.
Amon says that social support systems – encouragement from research advisors as well as family and friends – played a key role in helping women overcome challenges in these male-dominated professions.
"I was surprised at the major role that social supports took in helping women persevere in these fields," says Amon. "They were very sensitive to their mentor's feedback. I think that's true for the general population in research fields. However, when these women reported having lower confidence and higher perfectionism and their mentors were offering negative feedback or just weren't around, these women felt like they took a major hit.
"On the other hand, even in the face of failure, if their mentor told them it was all OK, that would really smooth over their personal turmoil about pursuing their career."