Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Plugging the Leaky Pipeline

A recent study suggests that a simple writing exercise can bolster the confidence of female students taking a difficult science course.  Social scientists, led by Akira Miyaki, found that female students who wrote an essay about their positive attributes performed better in an introductory physics class.  The broader implication of the work is that plugging the leaky pipeline may only require an intervention that enhances self-worth of women in STEM fields.  A detailed description of the study and its findings can be read here.

Briefly, the students (286 men and 116 women) were randomly assigned to one of two groups: those who were asked to write about (1) personal values such as relationships with friends and family or the importance of learning (they selected 3 values from a list of 10) and (2) values that were least important to them, but that might help others (control group).  The results indicated that the women who wrote about values important to them did significantly better in the class than the control group; there was no difference for the males.

I was interested in why such a simple exercise could have such an effect.  Although the researchers did not experimentally determine the "why", they speculated that it had something to do with ameliorating what they termed, "stereotype threat", i.e., the negative effect of the belief that women are less capable than men at science, particularly fields like physics, math, and engineering.  They hypothesized that the values-affirming exercise took the women's minds off the stereotype.  Can that be true?

I doubt that "taking their minds off the fact that women are inferior in science" is the explanation.  However, it clearly affected something.  An alternative explanation is that the writing exercise, which took place at the beginning of the class, initiated a self-affirming chain of thinking (or short-circuited a negative chain).  Other studies have shown that women are particularly sensitive to set-backs, and a single negative event (criticism, poor grade on an exam) can trigger a cascade of failures as each one lowers the woman's confidence in her abilities.  Women internalize (it must have been my fault), whereas men externalize (it's the other guy who's wrong).  When this self-blaming is combined with other negative thinking (e.g., magnifying problems out of proportion to reality), women ultimately come to believe they are unsuited to science.  If minor setbacks tend to undermine your confidence, then being forced to ponder your positive attributes and capabilities might act as an inoculation against negative thoughts (or self-blame).  Challenging negative or dysfunctional thinking is a well-known psychological practice--cognitive therapy

Regardless of the validity or purported novelty of this study's findings, I think it holds an important lesson for women in science.

Negative thinking potentially can have a really destructive effect on us--perhaps more so than for men.  I see this negative behavior in a lot of blogs written by young women in science.  I'm not saying it's bad to talk about the stuff that happens to us---just that it's important to put things into perspective and perhaps go an extra step to affirm our ability to deal with negative events and people.  If a short-term writing exercise can have such a dramatic effect on women in a physics course, imagine what daily or weekly blogging might be doing?  Are you dwelling on the negative, especially ranting about being powerless to change your fate?  Or are you mostly affirming your strengths and overall resistance to negative events?

By focusing on our capabilities and accomplishments (at least the majority of the time), we might change our overall outlook and self-confidence.  We might also have a positive influence on readers who are trying to decide whether to go into science or to stay in science.  Wouldn't you rather read about someone who figured out how to overcome an obstacle, rather than how they were so crushed that they decided to leave science altogether?

Image Credit: modified image based on "The Scream" by Edvard Munch (1893)

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