Oct 20, 2011

It's not over until ...

I'm seeing a number of reports, commentaries, and blogs about women in engineering. As I have had an interest in this area since college (see: She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect) -- and I'm a woman engineer -- I thought it might be a good time to revisit the topic in light of recent research.

For those unfamiliar, here's a two-second introduction to the main ideas behind current discussions:
After finding these two headlines for this particular topic, I got irritated. I had to find out what the real findings of the study were, so I leveraged my liberal arts education and sought out the proverbial horse's mouth. (Princeton, my alma mater, would be proud.)

The actual Park, et al study "Effects of Everyday Romance Goal Pursuit on Women's Attitudes Toward Math and Science" has these highlights:
  • The experimental design consisted of three parts: 1) "priming" women and men with romance and intelligence images, 2) priming them with overheard conversations about romantic, intellectual or friendship pursuits, and 3) having women keep a daily log of time spent on intellectual and romantic pursuits
  • The first sample set indicated that the women showed a definite loss of interest in majoring in STEM after being exposed to romance primes, even for those initially interested in STEM.
  • Men were largely unaffected.
This is where it got interesting for me. ... Men seemed set, unflinching; so if you want to get them into STEM, you have to set them on a path early because it will be hard to derail them (though my math/sociology student pointed out perhaps a more hard-core image set rather than romance images would be required for men to have the primal "mate-seeking" urges triggered).

But, with that perspective in mind, the data seemed to indicate that women can still be influenced even while in college. Sure, this study showed how they can be negatively influenced, but there were clues to the fact that there could be positive influences, too: "among participants who overhead the friendship conversation, women reported more positive attitudes towards STEM than did men" and "the more women pursued intelligence goals on the previous day, the more math activities they engaged in on the following day."

The engineer in me interprets this as: Environment matters, so if we retool our environment, women can be primed for success in STEM even when in college. That certainly is the philosophy of the women's college concept. In some ways, all-girls' schools should pick up this research with interest; all-women's colleges should dig more into this.

I am not one who can change societal environments easily, so I have a personal request to Drew Barrymore and Tina Fey: Can you please make some great, entertaining movies that prime girls and women towards this kind of success? Barrymore's films such as Never Been Kissed and Whip It! are great stories about odd-ball women emerging in a society that told them they had no place. Certainly women engineers could be fresh fodder. And Fey's entertaining and witty Mean Girls was based off a the non-fiction piece, Queen Bees and Wannabes (and the main character was good in math and liked it: "Math is the same in every country"). Certainly, the research around women and engineering (or STEM in general) invites some interesting drama (and comedy if you knew the stories I know)?

In the mean time, if you've got a budding woman engineer, just remember, the glass is half-full, not half-empty and draining. While females may be influenced away from fulfilling their STEM abilities, they can also be influenced positively and even inoculated (see Damour and Goodman's "Shielding Students from Stereotype Threat: A Guide for Teachers").

Just remember, it's not over until ... perhaps, later than we thought.