STEMing the Tide: Using Ingroup Experts to Inoculate Women's Self-Concept in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)

Observing and interacting with female experts in STEM fields improved female students’ attitudes towards those fields and increased their interest in pursuing STEM careers. 


Only 26 percent of graduate students are female in the physical sciences, and only 18 percent of full professors in STEM departments at research universities are women. The gender gap in academic and professional paths involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has been explained by factors related to individual talent and motivation, with little attention paid to the social dynamics that may influence this choice. Previous research, however, has established that often girls and women are exposed to messages that their ingroup performance is worse than that of their male peers in science and math. In order to counteract these messages, this paper describes three studies that examine whether contact with female experts (advanced peers, professionals, and professors) in academic environments enhances women’s attitudes toward STEM and motivation to pursue STEM careers. In the first study, the authors examined whether interactions with male or female peer experts would enhance the self-conceptions, as well as the effort and performance on a math test of female students majoring in STEM disciplines. The second study examines whether identification with female experts in the field of engineering would enhance female engineering students’ commitment to a future career in engineering. Finally, the third study examines the impact of female versus male professors on female calculus students with regard to attrition.


Increasing young women’s exposure to successful female scientists, mathematicians, and engineers strengthens female students’ self-identification with STEM and enhances positive attitudes, feelings of self-efficacy, and motivation to pursue STEM majors and careers.

  • Interaction with a female peer with expertise in math resulted in more positive attitudes towards math, greater identification with math as well as in increased effort on a difficult math test. Female students scored higher on implicit attitude scores for math and English when their professor was a woman, but strongly disliked math when their professor was a man (p=0.001). Male students did not differ when their professor was a man or a woman.
  • The percentage of female students who voluntarily answered questions in calculus class increased from 7% to 46% when they had a female professor, but decreased from 11% to 7% when they had a male professor over the course of a semester-long class. Male students also showed a similar pattern: 18% of males asked questions at the beginning of the semester, while 42% of male students responded to questions at the end of the semester with a female professors. Little change was noted between the beginning of the semester and the end of the semester for male students with male professors.
  • Though the female students achieved higher grades than the male students regardless of their professor’s sex, the female students were less confident in their abilities when they had all male professors and significantly more confident when they had all female professors.  On average, when female students had a female professor, the students expected to their grade to be higher than when they had a male professor. There was no effect of professor gender shown among male students.

Taken together, these findings suggest that being able to identify with women role models in math and engineering not only improves educational experiences in STEM classrooms, but enables female students to envision future careers in STEM fields for themselves.


Researchers conducted two controlled experiments and one semester length observational study to test the impact of exposure to female STEM experts on undergraduate women who have an interest in STEM fields.  In the two experiments, 174 (73 and 101, respectively) undergraduate women with STEM majors were recruited to participate.  In the first experiment, half of the students interacted with an advanced female peer, while the control group interacted with an advanced male peer.  In the second experiment, one-third of the students were assigned to read biographies of female engineers; one-third read the same biographies with pronouns and accompanying pictures changed to seem to be about male engineers; and one-third was a control group assigned to read descriptions of engineering innovations. In both experiments, the students’ implicit attitudes towards, identifications with, and gendered stereotypes about mathematics were then measured using Implicit Association Tests (IAT), and their explicit attitudes, identifications, and stereotypes were elicited through self-reporting.  In the first experiment, the students’ effort on a difficult math test was also measured.  

In the semester length observational study, 100 students were recruited from 15 sections of an introductory calculus course, half of which had all male instructors and half of which had all female instructors.  Once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end of the semester, students’ attitudes towards, identifications with, and gendered stereotypes about math were measured using the same IATs as in the first two tests. The students were also asked to predict the grade they expected to receive in the course to measure their sense of confidence in their math abilities.  Additionally, experimenters observed the participants in class to measure participation and interaction with their professors.

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