The Impact of Female Role Models in STEM Fields

**The MAS would like to note that two of our writers chose the same topic to write on. We have chosen to post both of their pieces, offering two different reports on the same research. The following article is the second of the two.**

There is a common yet totally off-base assertion that young girls don’t get involved in science, math and engineering simply because those fields don’t appeal to them.  In the past the number of females graduating with STEM degrees would certainly seem to support that general notion, and though in recent years those numbers have risen as females get more involved in STEM there is still a very real sense that female students have a hard time getting into STEM fields.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts  Amherst had an inkling that there was more going behind the scenes than just a lack of interest.  Nilanjana Dasgupta is a social psychologist at Umass and with the help of her grad students she devised and executed some very crafty experiments.   The goal,   as you might have already guessed,  was to put a thumb on the real reason that young females aren’t as motivated, engaged, and in general have low self-confidence in their own ability in STEM fields.   Dasgupta hypothesized that the issue was less about interest and motivation and much more about receiving subtle stereotypical messages that they didn’t belong in STEM fields.  It is far more common to find male STEM teachers, professors and professionals than it is women.  The researchers felt that girls receive negative indirect messages about their place and potential in STEM fields which affects their self-image.  To find support for this hypothesis the researchers designed experiments to get at the visceral feelings that girls had about STEM.   Two groups of girls, one group received an interaction with a female STEM professional and the other group received none.  The girls were asked to do some very quick, computerized word associations, a simple example would be coupling words like “algorithm” with “good” or “bad”.  By forcing the girls to answer in such a short amount of time they were able to get at the very real feelings the girls were experiencing just after making the associations.  What Dasgupta and her grad students found was quite revealing.  Girls who had no previous interaction with a female STEM professional had very sour feelings about STEM and their own ability to succeed in STEM.  However girls who did interact with female STEM professionals  had an incredibly strong positive outlook regarding STEM and their ability to succeed.  Dasgupta refers to this effect as a “stereotype inoculation”.    The idea is that the very simple act of a young girl interacting with a role model such as a female STEM professional allows the girl to connect with and accept the projection of her own abilities in STEM.  This interaction also protects the girl from being overwhelmed by the inhibiting effects of the subtle negative stereotypes she experienced previously.

This is an astonishing revelation, girls who are bombarded with indirect negative messages of their place and potential in STEM fields and who have low expectations and confidence in their STEM abilities can totally reverse their sense of themselves simply by interacting with a successful female STEM professional.  Now this may not be the case for every girl and it may not be so profound for some girls but if Dasgupta’s research continues to find this same trend then it’s a powerful piece of information.  This could be a pivotal issue for improving the future of STEM education, and more importantly it offers young females the opportunity to search out and meet their full potential.  If you’d like to learn more about STEM education and what Umass is doing about it please visit us at http://massacademysciences.org/.

Written by: Matthew Panechelli

 

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