Cal Poly Pomona has received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of General Medical Sciences to investigate how stereotypes influence women’s success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and what motivates some women to pursue male-dominated disciplines.
Researchers will follow about 400 men and women in STEM majors at Cal Poly Pomona for two years and assess their relationships in the classroom, self-esteem, optimism and gender identity, among other variables. The study, an extension of a research project focused on middle school girls and math, will also track how many women continue in their major.
Bettina Casad, assistant professor of psychology, says that when women are aware of their minority status in their field or workplace, it can often negatively affect their performance. She describes the condition as “stereotype threat.”
“They’re reminded consciously or unconsciously of that stereotype, and it may lead to underperformance,” says Casad, principal investigator of a $519,262 National Science Foundation grant in 2007-10. “Women are worried about confirming a negative stereotype, and it produces a stress response – less working memory, decreased motivation and less persistence on tasks.”
Results from similar studies have led to improvements in advising and intervention, as well as changes in campus and academic cultures, Casad says. For example, universities began offering themed freshmen dorms to encourage student cohorts to aid in each other’s success. Students who live and study together were more likely to succeed in class, graduate and pursue a career in their academic field. Research findings may also identify a need for specific support groups or academic clubs.
“Ultimately, it can inform interventions and improve our ability to attract, recruit and retain women and minorities in STEM fields,” Casad says.
“I think Cal Poly Pomona is a great environment. We do value diversity, and we can enact programs that support students in nontraditional domains.”