STUDY: STEM diversity efforts have 'unintended consequences'

An Indiana University study finds that efforts to raise awareness of the lack of women in STEM are actually making women feel more out of place.

Indiana University Professor Psychology Evava Pietri conducted the study, titled “Addressing Unintended Consequences of Gender Diversity Interventions on Women’s Sense of Belonging in STEM.” It was published on August 17 in the journal Sex Roles.

Though researchers have previously theorized that STEM intervention efforts may backfire, this is the first study to use an experimental approach to illustrate —under laboratory conditions—how “women in STEM” advocacy may be backfiring. 

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To do this, Pietrithe recruited 585 participants to watch videos on the STEM gender gap. Half of the participants watched videos depicting conversations between professors and students about the disparity and each conversation was inspired by a specific research article.  

The rest of the participants watched a set of interviews with a male psychology professor, describing how research on the STEM disparity is conducted. Unsurprisingly, the videos were effective in raising participants’ “bias literacy,” or their ability to articulate various ways in which women are subjected to bias in STEM. 

But the educational videos also had a downside. 

The videos “increased awareness of gender bias in the sciences, which led women, but not men, to ultimately experience decreased anticipated belonging and trust and increased negative affect and stereotype threat concerns about the STEM organization.” 

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“Moreover, for women, awareness of gender bias in the sciences (i.e., gender bias literacy) was the mechanism underscoring their enhanced social identity threat,” Pietrithe and her fellow researchers explained. 

Moving forward, the researchers call for women in STEM advocates to be “diligent in investigating the possibility of unintended negative outcomes” before trying to get more women into STEM. 

Further, they cast doubt over whether these programs should be created in the first place. 

“If diversity interventions, such as [the one used in the experiment] have negative consequences on women’s sense of belonging in STEM, should women even be exposed to them in the first place?”

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“Perhaps the risks associated with social identity threat are not worth the benefits of increased bias literacy and reduced gender bias,” they add. 

Professors from Purdue University, Yale University, Skidmore College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison assisted with the research for this study. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen