Nilanjana “Buju” Dasgupta, psychological and brain sciences and director of the College of Natural Sciences’ faculty equity and inclusion initiative, recently gave a distinguished lecture at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., as a guest of the agency’s directorate of social, behavioral, and economic sciences.
Dasgupta’s research has focused in part on understanding the subtle ways in which stereotypes influence young peoples’ choices of academic majors and careers and identifying how to change them. In particular, she focuses on girls and women who have full potential to succeed in careers in science, technology, and engineering, and why they may choose not to pursue such careers.
At the June 16 event, Dasgupta told the audience of about 75 NSF program directors, other staff members, visiting scientists, engineers, and science writers from the Washington, D.C., metro area that while educators usually think of students’ academic performance as the most important determinant of whether they will go on to pursue a certain field of study, her decade-long program of research suggests something else is at work. “One thing that I’ve learned from my research is that for girls and women in STEM, in particular, performance is not the ingredient that will tell me who is susceptible to leaving,” she said. “The critical ingredient is whether they feel they belong. Belonging is just another way of saying, ‘Do I fit in here?’”
She adds, “Our research identifies the types of people and environments that function as ‘social vaccines’ in academic settings by inoculating women’s self-confidence against negative stereotypes in STEM and increasing their persistence.” She proposed five ways that institutions committed to broadening participation can help women feel welcome in STEM:
Increase contact between female STEM professors and the women taking their classes, so those students can imagine themselves achieving similar success.
Encourage mentoring relationships between female STEM students just beginning their studies and more advanced female students in the same major.
For team projects, pay attention to gender composition. Ensure a critical mass of women on teams, and avoid teams with just one woman.
In fields where there are low numbers of female faculty, showcase the success of technical women in other ways: through brief stories of the work of women scientists, engineers, and technology creators as they relate to course material, guest speakers in STEM classes and colloquium speakers on campus.
Remember that these sorts of interventions are most important when students are at developmental transition points, when they may be questioning their belonging in a new challenging academic environment, such as when students move from high school to college.
Last year, NSF director France Cordova recruited Dasgupta to be part of a small group of national thought leaders to advise the agency on strategies to scale up diversity in the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce.
After the recent distinguished lecture event, NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs staff interviewed Dasgupta for a blog and web-based profile of its consulting experts on diversity in STEM education. It is expected to be released in coordination with Women’s Equality Day in August.