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Want more women in science and math? Pay attention to group projects, study suggests

Group projects may hold the key to getting more girls and women to enter science, technology, engineering and math or fields that men otherwise dominate.

When women make up the majority of a group, they are more likely to worry less, feel confident and also to speak up and actively contribute to solve the problem at hand, said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who led the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Paying more attention to the gender make-up of groups allows teachers, professors and industry leaders may help create an environment where women may feel more at ease as well as counteract the idea that women don’t belong in certain professions, according this new research. Essentially, they are administering what Dasgupta calls a “social vaccine.”

This is especially important for first-year college students, she said, when attrition among those majoring in science and technology fields is high.

“A negative stereotype is like a virus that gets in your mind,” she said. When a young female engineering student encounters female figures who defy gender stereotypes, “female peers and scientists and engineers are social vaccines,” Dasgupta said.

She has seen the importance of female role models and peers in her own classroom. In 1997, Dasgupta encountered a female student who had been recruited to study engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. The more classes that student took, she said that she saw fewer fellow female students, Dasgupta explained.

“At some point in time, she felt completely isolated,” Dasgupta said.

Eventually, that student switched her college major altogether.

In her study, Dasgupta gathered female undergraduate students at a large public university who also majored in engineering, making up only 15 percent of that school’s program. Then, Dasgupta placed these female students in problem-solving groups where there was only one female student present, where the number of male and female students was the same or where most students were female.

“In some ways, having gender parity is beneficial, but in other ways it’s not enough,” Dasgupta said.

Female students who worked on teams with an equal number of male and female students reported greater confidence and less social anxiety than teams with a single female student, but more was needed for these women to contribute, Dasgupta explained.

In groups where male students were outnumbered, female students “were much more likely to speak up, come up with solutions and engage verbally,” she said.

While debate continues to stir not only about female participation in science and technology but also the executive leadership, Dasgupta said that “these data offer a very clear concrete intervention that can make a difference.”

“Changing society takes a long time, and it’s an endeavor we can all engage in,” she said. “We shouldn’t be sitting on our hands any time we are in a position to design teams or manage teams to lead.”

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