Does Encouragement Matter in Improving Gender Imbalances in Technical Fields? Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial

Encouragement via email can increase female students’ interest in STEM conferences.


Women are traditionally underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), perhaps due in part to a lack of female mentors and role models, concerns about managing a work-life balance, and a relative lack of access to professional support structures and networks. Low-cost “nudge” interventions (such as personalized informational packets and text messages) that focus on opportunity awareness and encouragement have previously been found to increase diversity in academic and professional settings, but have not been tested for closing the gender gap in STEM.

In this study, the authors investigate the effect of a simple intervention (issuing personalized emails to graduate students from the organizers of a prominent conference to encourage applications) on increasing female graduate student applications to and attendance at an academic conference focused on quantitative methods.


Personalized emails encouraging graduate students to apply to the Society for Political Methodology Summer Meeting (“PolMeth”) increase the likelihood of applications but not of acceptances for female graduates students.  

  • Receiving the personalized emails increased conference applications by about 2.7 percentage points compared to no emails in the full study population. This was higher for women than men (3.2 vs. 2.3 percentage points among men), but the difference was not statistically significant.
  • For women, receiving personalized emails had the reverse effect for conference acceptances. Among the conference applicants, female applicants receiving personalized emails had lower acceptance rates (31.7%) than female applicants receiving no emails (66.7%); there was no statistically significant difference between the male applicants receiving the treatment and those assigned to the control group.
  • A close look at conference applicants found that female applicants receiving personalized emails were less likely to submit an optional faculty letter of recommendation (49% submitted a letter) than female applications receiving no emails (73% submitted a letter), which might help explain these findings, while there was no statistically significant difference among the male applicants.

In short, personalized emails encouraging graduate students to apply to attend a STEM conference were effective in increasing overall application numbers, and it appears that the effect might be stronger among women.  However, female applicants who received the personalized emails were less likely to be accepted than those who did not, so increasing interest (via applications) may not be sufficient to increase participation (via acceptance). Future efforts can be better tailored to address additional factors for why female applicants might have weaker applications, such as being less likely to have faculty support.


The authors identified 3,945 graduate students (1,597 female) in the Top 50 political science graduate programs as potential applicants to the Society for Political Methodology Summer Meeting (“PolMeth”), a prominent conference on quantitative methods in the field. Blocking on both department and gender, half of the students were randomly assigned to receive two personalized emails encouraging applications, and half received nothing. The authors compared the total number of applications and acceptances to the conference between the treated and control groups. A subset of students (786 who had received the emails, 843 who had not) also agreed to complete a follow-up survey that included additional applicant demographics and factors such as whether they had requested or submitted an optional faculty letter of recommendation with their application.

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