For years, educators and policy makers have been faced with a stark gender gap: physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers tend to be men. A reasonable goal has been to even the scales, so that the number of women probing the edge of the cosmos, designing new software, or building rocket engines is the same as the number of men.
But a recent study by a University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher adds a wrinkle to this seemingly straightforward solution. Researchers set up an experiment in which women engineering college students participated in groups with different gender ratios and found that even when they are represented 50-50, women speak up less during those meetings than when they are in the majority. There were benefits to equality in numbers: Women felt less anxious, but that didn’t result in more participation.
“The ‘leaning in’ part, being verbally active and playing a visible role on the team, that kind of stuff, especially speaking up on the team” occurred most when women were in groups where they were in the majority, said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at UMass Amherst.
In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers set up groups with either 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent women. Each group was given two engineering questions that didn’t have a simple or single answer — for example, a scenario in which ships carrying oil barrels were coming to unload cargo and the groups were asked to design the most efficient dock.
The individuals worked on the problems alone at first, and handed in their answers so the researchers would be able to factor in their starting ability.
Then, they began working in a team. Unbeknownst to the woman participating in the experiment, the three other people in the group were planted there by the research team — they were carefully trained engineering students who acted the same each time.
The setup, repeated 120 times with 120 different female participants, allowed the researchers to pinpoint how gender ratio affected participation and nervousness.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that when women dominated the group or were represented in equal numbers, the women who participated reported feeling less anxious and more confident. This was especially true for freshmen.
But women were less inclined to speak unless they were in the majority, even when women were more advanced students. Gender parity still resulted in less participation from the women. And in groups where women were outnumbered by men, women who held stereotypes that engineers tended to be men had less confidence and interest in pursuing an engineering career.
Virginia Valian, a professor of psychology at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said the findings resonate with others in the field. Some research has found evidence of “stereotype threat” — in which women taking a math test perform less well on it if they are in a room outnumbered by men rather than other women. Another study found that seemingly benign decorating choices, such as sitting in a room with a Star Wars poster instead of art posters and nature scenes, can affect women’s interest in computer science.
“I think the results generalize to any fields that are heavily male-dominated,” Valian wrote in an e-mail. “The fact that women participate more when the group is female-dominant may reflect a rational expectation on the part of women — whether they are in college or sitting around a boardroom conference table. Namely, they will be listened to more if there are more women present.”
To Dasgupta, the findings could easily be adopted by teachers and professors when thinking about group activities. Her research suggests that even small changes to group composition could help instill greater confidence and encourage more participation from women.
For her next project, she is examining real-world classrooms at the middle school and college levels, trying to identify the teaching techniques that work.Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.