Strategies addressing a “chilly climate” transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering

This article is part of an ongoing blog series, titled Inequality in STEM: a Dive Into the Data. In this series, we cover recent research exploring and quantifying inequality in STEM. We'll discuss different aspects of inequality, including barriers to career advancement and a chilly social climate, as well as the efficacy of various interventions to combat bias. Our goal with these pieces is to provide clear summaries of the data related to bias in STEM, giving scientific evidence to back up the personal experiences of URMs in STEM fields.

 A "chilly climate" could lead women to attribute negative events, such as a poor first quarter GPA, to being ill-suited to a career in STEM. The authors asked whether presenting female engineering students with quotes normalizing a difficult transition or encouraging a balanced lifestyle could help put negative events into perspective.

A "chilly climate" could lead women to attribute negative events, such as a poor first quarter GPA, to being ill-suited to a career in STEM. The authors asked whether presenting female engineering students with quotes normalizing a difficult transition or encouraging a balanced lifestyle could help put negative events into perspective.

In the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) women are underrepresented both in numbers of senior faculty and participation metrics [1,2,3]. Women leave STEM fields at all transition points, a phenomenon known as “the leaky pipeline.” As we have seen in previous posts, external factors, such as the content of recommendation letters are strikingly different between female and male postdoctoral trainees [4]. However, internal factors, such as a sense of belonging may be important as well. For example, the intention to pursue Mathematics training, in both male and female college age students, can be predicted from their sense of belonging in that department [5]. In this post, we highlight a study by Professor Gregory Walton and his colleagues, where they characterize feelings of exclusion, and attempt to mitigate these feelings through the development of simple intervention strategies [6].

Experimenters administered two separate interventions to subgroups of female and male freshmen from a competitive engineering department at the University of Waterloo. Each intervention involved a classroom session where the participants listened to summaries of more senior students’ early experiences in, and current perspectives on, the program. For each intervention, the researchers revised specific summaries and quotes to emphasize particular perspective shifts.

The first intervention, a social-belonging intervention, aimed to assist female undergraduate students’ transition into the engineering department. The experimenters primed students to interpret negative experiences as common to the academic transition, rather than as a result of exclusion:

When I first got to Waterloo, I worried that I was different from the other students. Everyone else seemed so certain it was the right place for them and were so happy to be here. But I wasn’t sure I fit in—if I would make friends, if people would respect me. Sometime after my first year, I came to realize that almost everyone comes to Waterloo and feels uncertain at first about whether they fit in.  It’s something everyone goes through.  Now it seems ironic—everybody feels different first year, when really we’re all going through the same things.

The experimenters encouraged the viewpoint that all freshmen are experiencing a challenging transition, and deemphasized the contribution of gender to the chilly climate felt by freshmen.

The second intervention, affirmation training, aimed to broaden the perspective of the participants beyond engineering and academics. Experimenters emphasized that senior students, regardless of gender, possess more balanced self-identities:

When I first got to Waterloo, I worried that I was different from the other engineers. Everyone else seemed so excited and happy to be here but I just felt stressed and overwhelmed. There were so many new people; my classes were harder; it was a totally new environment. Sometime after my first year, I realized that almost everyone feels overwhelmed at times in the transition to university. It’s just a process that everyone goes through. It takes time to find your own way of keeping things in balance in a new place. Now it seems ironic— everyone feels different first year, when really we’re all experiencing the same things.

The affirmation stories included ideas like “keeping things in balance,” rather than emphasizing fitting in. By encouraging the incorporation of broader factors into students’ identities, such as “leading a healthy lifestyle,” students may be able to manage threat and stress from a more robust position.

 Figure 1. First-year GPA, shown in percent scale. While women in male-dominated engineering majors who did not receive interventions hover close to failing grades, both intervention groups have GPAs comparable to their male peers.

Figure 1. First-year GPA, shown in percent scale. While women in male-dominated engineering majors who did not receive interventions hover close to failing grades, both intervention groups have GPAs comparable to their male peers.

To quantify the effectiveness of each intervention, researchers tracked the male and female engineering students over the course of one year. They monitored several factors, including participants’ attitudes toward engineering, strength of negative experiences (interpreted from required diary entries), as well as their end of year grade point average (GPA) (figure 1).

Female participants benefited from both interventions, experiencing improvements in both academic attitude and GPA. Male participants largely did not experience benefit or loss from either intervention. The authors suggest this might be expected because the interventions were not aimed at boosting individual esteem, but encouraged a shift towards a perspective that men may already have: feeling included. This paper shows that two very different strategies – one that shifted the sense of group-identity of the participants to a more neutral one, and one that shifted their self-identity – both led to better outcomes for the female participants.

While the results of this study demonstrate that a simple perspective shift can help women to thrive in a “chilly climate,” it does not address the climate itself. That said, this study indicates that many subtle factors can contribute to women’s feelings of exclusion in STEM, and that there are multiple avenues for improvement.

[1] Yoder, B. L. Engineering by the Numbers. in American Society for Engineering Education (2012).

[2] Hinsley, A., Sutherland, W. J. & Johnston, A. Men ask more questions than women at a scientific conference. PLoS One 12, e0185534 (2017).

[3] Carter, A., Croft, A., Lukas, D. & Sandstrom, G. Women’s visibility in academic seminars: women ask fewer questions than men. arXiv [physics.soc-ph] (2017).

[4] Madera, J. M., Hebl, M. R. & Martin, R. C. Gender and letters of recommendation for academia: agentic and communal differences. J. Appl. Psychol. 94, 1591–1599 (2009).

[5] Good, C., Rattan, A. & Dweck, C. S. Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 102, 700–717 (2012).

[6] Gregory M. Walton, Christine Logel, Jennifer M. Peach, Steven J. Spencer and Mark P. Zanna. Two brief interventions to mitigate a ‘chilly climate’ transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering. doi:10.1037/a0037461