Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta began her Sept. 20 presentation by having the audience imagine a common scenario in the United States. Two young students have the same abilities in science and mathematics, yet they take diverging academic paths. The only difference between the two? Their gender.
It’s the female student who tends to leave STEM education behind despite proven ability and initial interest, Dasgupta told the audience gathered for Common Hour, a community discussion conducted each Thursday classes are in session. Young women lose confidence in their abilities in science and math courses during key transitional periods, especially their first year of college.
“These disparities in STEM education end up meaning that there’s a scarcity of women who are employed as scientists, engineers, technology creators, and computer scientists, which are some of the fastest growing jobs in the global economy and also some of the best paying jobs,” said Dasgupta, professor of psychology and director of faculty equity & inclusion at UMass Amherst. “In other words, the gender difference in STEM education ends up being one contributor to income disparity between women and men.”
According to Dasgupta, when it comes to encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM fields, interactions with female mentors play a vital role.
“I propose in my research that people tend to gravitate toward fields where they feel they belong often times because those fields fit with positive stereotypes of their own group,” she said.
Dasgupta and her colleagues call their proposed solution a “stereotype inoculation model.” It increases an individual’s freedom to pursue any academic or professional path unconstrained by stereotypes.
“The idea is that just as biomedical vaccines protect and inoculate our physical body against noxious bacteria, so too can exposure to admired experts and peers from one’s own identity group protect and inoculate one’s mind against noxious stereotypes,” she said.
Through years of research in controlled laboratory experiments and in the field, Dasgupta and her colleagues discovered a positive correlation between female students’ exposure to female representation in their first-year STEM courses and continued success in STEM education. This includes learning from female professors, being mentored by same-sex seniors in their major, or even just learning about specific successful women who are professionals in that field. The same does not apply to male students.
While Dasgupta and her team’s research focuses mainly on female students, she feels confident that the concept of “stereotype inoculation” also could work for other groups who are minorities in STEM fields, making it a promising model to pursue in order to recruit more talented students to these growing fields.