Our Tuesday meeting last week largely focused on a paper, “Female peers in small work groups enhance women’s motivation, verbal participation, and career aspirations in engineering” authored by Dasgupta, et al. Dasgupta, a professor in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences next door to us at UMass Amherst, emphasized the nationwide need to increase the representation of women in STEM fields, pointing out that although the scarcity of women in these fields is widely recognized, few data-driven solutions are offered.
Dasgupta’s study indicated that creating classroom groups with high proportions of women in otherwise male-dominated fields can be effective in keeping women engaged in STEM career paths. In essence, female role models and peers can act as a “social vaccine” to enhance academic confidence, especially in first-year women.
Many of us felt that the paper’s findings confirmed our own positive experiences working with female-dominated groups: Gaby noted that being part of an all-female orthopedic surgery environment helped her realize her commitment to STEM, and Ruth mentioned that having female professors (accessible examples of women who “survived” their respective career paths) was especially empowering. I should say that I’ve already found working in this all-female group to be a uniquely legitimizing experience – one where I feel comfortable to speak up, ask questions, and challenge myself.
Ashley drew on her yearlong experience at Wellesley, noting that cultural changes at the all-women’s college profoundly increased her academic self-confidence. Dasgupta emphasized that sex parity (half female, half male) groups, more or less the composition of a typical Amherst classrom, were insufficient in increasing STEM women’s self-concept, and that it took a female majority to see significant improvements. We may have a lot to learn from these 100 percent female environments, especially with Smith and Mount Holyoke readily accessible to us for interviews.
Just how might we apply this knowledge to improve the Amherst STEM experience will be a central question in coming weeks, so stay tuned!