Two Brief Interventions to Mitigate a “Chilly Climate” Transform Women’s Experience, Relationships, and Achievement in Engineering
Interventions designed to counteract the negative psychological impacts of social marginalization can help close the gender gap in STEM fields.
Women are underrepresented in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Social forces that marginalize women in the work or classroom environment can create a “chilly” climate that may make them feel unwelcome and lead to high levels of stress. This environment may also compromise women’s ability to cope with stress and ultimately worsen their performance in STEM fields over time. The authors of this study suggest that, in addition to the sexism and lack of opportunities that women experience in engineering, women also face psychological duress from being a minority and negatively stereotyped in the field. This study attempts to ameliorate the psychological stress faced by women in STEM and improve their achievement outcomes by using two interventions that equip first year engineering students with coping mechanisms for the “chilly” climate. The first intervention focused on increasing women students’ sense of belonging and the second focused on improving their resiliency in the face of difficulty. All of the students in the study were randomized to receive either the first intervention, the second intervention, or to control groups. The outcomes of these interventions were measured by changes in each student’s end of year GPA, and surveys about their attitudes towards female engineers, the field of engineering, and personal experiences of their program.
Overall, women in male-dominated majors experienced the greatest benefits from the two interventions, compared to women in more gender diverse majors and men in any major. The social-belonging and affirmation training interventions effectively eliminated any pre-existing gender differences in GPA, daily reported confidence levels, ability to cope with stress, among other variables identified as effects of the “chilly” climate for women in engineering.
- At baseline, the gender differences in most of the outcome measures of interest were especially large in the engineering majors where women were the minority (<20% of the major).
- For example, in male-dominant majors, women reported worse outcomes at baseline than men for perceived importance of negative events, confidence in handling school stress and self-esteem.
Effect on First Year GPA
- Participating in either intervention raised women’s GPA by an estimated 11.4 points out of 100 (an average of 11.66 points in the social-belonging intervention and 11.13 in the affirmation-training), effectively closing the gender gap in GPA found at baseline.
Perception of Adversity
- Women who participated in either intervention group (on a 5-point Likert scale):
- Viewed daily adversities as less “important” by an average of 3.55 points(on a 5-point Likert scale): ;
- Expressed greater confidence in handling school stress by an average of 0.93 points(on a 4-point scale); and
- Reported higher and more stable self-esteem by 0.71 points (on a 7-point scale).
Experience in Engineering
- The interventions boosted women’s overall experience in engineering, measured immediately following the session (by an average of 0.58 points on a 7-point Likert scale) and several months later (by an average of 0.61 points), and increased their reported confidence in succeeding in engineering by an average of 13.35 points (on a 100-point scale).
Effect on Social Network
- Women who participated in the social-belonging intervention increased the percentage of men in their friend circles compared to women assigned to the affirmation-training group or controls.
- Women who participated in the affirmation-training intervention exhibited greater gender identification and increased number of women friendships compared to women in the social-belonging intervention or control group.
Perception of Female Engineers
- Women who participated in the social-belonging intervention had more positive opinions about female engineers than women in either the control or affirmation-training groups.
More broadly, the social belonging intervention increased women’s social integration into their program and improved their opinions about women in engineering, while the affirmation training increased the women’s self-esteem and gender identity, leading them to build more friendships with women outside of engineering.
A total of 228 first-year engineering students from the University of Waterloo (one of the top ranked engineering schools in Canada) participated in this study. The recruitment handout framed the study as a program, entitled “Skills for Transitions to Engineering Project” (STEP), that provided an opportunity for students to share their early engineering experiences with their cohort and future students. Each of the 92 women and 136 men in the final sample were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: the affirmation-training intervention, the social-belonging intervention, or to the control groups. Based on the proportion of women in their engineering major, each student was either classified as being in a “gender-diverse” major (more than 20% enrolled were women) or a “male-dominated” major.
Participants completed a pre-intervention survey that evaluated five topics: their current experience in engineering (including their sense of belonging and sense of self-efficacy), their professional prospects in engineering (including their perceived potential success in the field), their identification with their gender, the gender composition of their friend groups (percentage of friends that were men or women), and their opinions about women in engineering (using a version of the well-validated Implicit Association Test). After the pre-intervention survey, control and intervention materials were delivered to the students in a classroom session according to their group assignment.
The social-belonging intervention presented materials that emphasized that both men and women entering the engineering program worried about social belonging, all students worried initially about being treated with respect, and that all of the students share common interests in engineering. The affirmation-training intervention on the other hand, emphasized that senior engineering students coped with stress by incorporating broader aspects of their self-identity and personal values in their daily lives. Both sessions lasted no more than one hour.
Data was analyzed using multiple regression. The effects of the interventions were evaluated based on 4 outcome variables: first-year engineering GPA scored out of 100; attitudes toward engineering based on responses to questions asked in the pre-intervention survey and immediately after the intervention; daily diary entries completed post-intervention where students evaluated their feelings toward their engineering program, confidence in handling school stress, and their level of self-esteem; and a second semester survey revisiting content once again from the preintervention survey.