Improving Girls' Sense of Fit in Science: Increasing the Impact of Role Models
Beyond merely exposing girls to role models, actively encouraging girls to choose a role model may improve their sense of fit in science.
Girls and women pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) face various obstacles, some of which relate to the widespread stigma against women in STEM, which discourages their participation. Studies have shown that one effective intervention to counteract the existing stigma is the presence of female role models, which can positively impact girls’ and women’s interest in STEM fields. However, prior research also indicates that some role models are more effective than others. For example, gender neutral female role models in STEM were found to be more effective than highly feminine ones for 6th and 7th grade girls, whereas “nerdy” role models have been found to reduce the interest of college-age girls in science.
To add to existing knowledge about the positive impact of female role models in STEM, researchers investigated how this positive impact could be maximized. One avenue is to encourage girls to choose a role model and write about why they chose them, instead of merely exposing them to role models. This may lead to increased impact because it allows girls to self-select those role models they identify with the most and avoid those that do not appeal to them. Also, it gives girls a sense of free choice in identifying a role model, which has been shown to contribute to an increased sense of belonging in and commitment to STEM careers.
Through a field experiment conducted on middle school girls at a one-day science outreach event where girls were exposed to multiple potential female role models, researchers tested whether actively encouraging girls to choose their favorite role model from the event would impact their sense of fit within science. The study focused on middle school girls because existing research shows that this is around the time that cultural stigma against women in STEM begins to become salient to girls.
Encouraging girls to actively choose a role model improved their sense of fit in science, i.e., how much they reported they felt like they belonged in the field.
- Girls who were exposed to potential role models and encouraged to select a favorite role model and reflect on their selection showed a greater improvement in their sense of fit in science, as compared to girls who were exposed to potential role models but were not encouraged to select a favorite nor reflect.
- A girl’s greater sense of fit in science was correlated with that girl’s greater sense of identification with the role model.
When selecting their favorite role models, expertise and degree of similarity between the role model and the girls did not influence the girls’ choice. However, the girls did identify competent role models and compelling workshop activities as important.
- The role model’s expertise in STEM (e.g., having advanced degrees in STEM) did not influence girls’ selection of their favorite role models. Approximately 30% of workshop leaders had a PhD. Approximately 25% of the workshop leaders selected as favorite role models had PhDs.
- Middle school girls did not seem to identify their similarities to their role models as an important factor in selecting a favorite role model.
- Girls identified the role model’s competence, such as whether the role model gave clear directions and was knowledgeable about what they were teaching, as important factors in selecting a favorite role model.
- A substantial minority also mentioned feeling supported by the role model as an important factor and commented on the role model’s warmth.
- A key factor in a girl selecting a role model as her favorite was that they generated enthusiasm for science education.
Middle school is an ideal time to intervene to increase girls’ interest in STEM fields. Future research should address whether the characteristics of effective role models are different for college women compared to younger girls.
Researchers conducted a field study of 175 middle school girls (grades 5 through 8) in the New Orleans metropolitan area, all of whom attended a one-day scientific outreach program called Girls in STEM at Tulane (GiST). The middle school participants were recruited through local schools, radio announcements, internet and social media, and word of mouth, and the study was conducted in spring 2014 and fall 2014.
During the GiST program, girls were exposed to numerous potential role models in STEM through a series of three hourlong, fun, accessible, and informal workshops led by women in various STEM fields. The workshop leaders included advanced students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty and staff from a university in the New Orleans area. Workshop examples included a neuroscience workshop on “Using Your Brain;” a physics workshop on “Fluids, Bubbles, and Slime;” and a biological anthropology workshop on “Monkeys, Apes, and You.” The workshop leaders also shared their personal experiences in science, such as how they became interested in science and their prior coursework.
Participants were randomly assigned to the intervention group (in which they were asked to write about their favorite role model from the event) and the control group (in which they were asked to write about their best friend). Before the workshops, all the participants were assessed on their sense of fit in science. After the workshops and the reflection activities, all participants were again assessed on their sense of fit in science and their degree of identification with their chosen role model.