A team of psychologists report on an intervention for college undergraduates which found that female 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.
That won't help in the real world, of course, companies do not pick teams based on sex, but it lends evidence to claims of 'stereotype threat', the notion promoted by psychologists and sociologists than when women lack equal numbers, they are less likely to perform because they are wondered about how their performance makes women look. Of course, women in science are not the only ones facing stereotype threat, white basketball players and all athletes have the same stereotype issues.
"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," says Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "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."
The psychologists 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 scholars 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."
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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