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Misguided Study Shows Why Push for Women in STEM Could Be Backfiring

women in science lab

Professors at Skidmore College recently published the results of a new study that, unintentionally, revealed how efforts to recruit women into STEM fields may be backfiring.

Corinne Moss-Racusin teaches courses on diversity in STEM at Skidmore College. Her latest study has been published in the journal Sex Roles, a peer-reviewed journal covering recent developments in psychological research.

Upon first glance, her study seems to bolster the argument that bias against women results in the STEM gender gap. Moss-Racusin concludes as such: “[G]ender bias produces STEM gender gaps.” After looking at her study's methods, however, it appears her evidence points to an entirely different conclusion.

Rather than show that actual bias has caused the gender gap, she shows that scare stories -- false narratives about how women are currently treated in STEM -- can really drive them away. In short, the chosen PR push backfires.

In the study, 322 participants read a hypothetical story about how science professors “rated a male lab manager applicant as more competent, hirable, and deserving of mentoring than the identical female applicant.” This male applicant was also offered a “higher starting salary” than the identical female applicant.

Then, participants were asked questions such as:

-- How interested in working in a STEM field are you?

-- If you were offered a job in a STEM field, how likely would you be to take it?

Not surprisingly, female participants were significantly less likely than the control group to aspire to enter the STEM field after they read the hypothetical scare story.

Moss-Racusin’s argument is based on the hypothetical story she made participants read being an accurate take of how women are currently treated in STEM. Instead, it is a caricatured tall tale reflecting what might happen if a woman enters STEM.

In other words, Moss-Racusin has concluded that mistreatment of women caused the STEM gender gap because hypothetical mistreatment of women causes them to avoid hypothetical mistreatment.

She's actually shown that the preconceived atmosphere of bias behind the push for women in STEM can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other researchers in the field have made similar arguments.

Most recently, Georgetown University professor Adriana Kugler published research finding that traditional strategies to recruit women into STEM may actually drive women away from STEM.

“Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields, but that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields,” Kugler says.

Kugler's research found that common explanations for the lack of women in STEM fail to hold up under rigorous scientific scrutiny.

Instead, the trouble begins when media and STEM recruitment efforts capitalize on the narrative of discrimination, because it “sends an additional message to women that they don't belong there."