Why Science Needs Female Dominated Teams

Female STEM

In a recent post I wrote about a new study that highlighted the value of female candidates to political parties. The study was a stern response to suggestions that voters wouldn’t respond well to female candidates, or that there is a dearth of talent available. This latter argument is often used to excuse the poor numbers of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

See Also: The What, Why and How of The Gender Pay Gap

Just as in politics however, getting women into your STEM team appears to be the ticket to success, at least according to a recent study that explored the matter.

The study revealed that when young female students participate in groups that are predominantly female, they feel much less anxious, and indeed participate more actively, than when the groups are more mixed.

It’s evidence of the so called stereotype threat, whereby women who lack equality in the workplace suffer with their performance because they become so preoccupied with how their performances will affect the view of women in their profession.

"The important thing we found in this experiment is that even in learning environments where women are a tiny minority, if we can create work teams or learning teams, basically small groups with a high percentage of women, those promote women’s success by reducing worry and anxiety, increasing women willingness to speak up and ’lean in,’ to use Facebook CEO Cheryl Sandberg’s phrase," the authors say. "This allows women to speak up and not worry what others think, increases confidence about their ability and ultimately lets them aspire to a career in these fields."

About the study

The study saw a group of female engineering students randomly assigned to small teams consisting of either 75 percent women, 50 percent women or 25 percent women. Hidden within each group was a mole from the research team who was monitoring the participation and behaviour of each participant, both in public and also via private conversations.

These private chats revealed a number of concerns, whether it was faith in one’s ability, concerns about visibility within the group and even career aspirations.

The results revealed that the gender composition of each team played a big role in how successful female engineers were. When the teams were predominantly female, the engineering students participated more often, were more robust with their concerns, felt more confident, and aspired towards a career in engineering upon graduation.

Whilst equal teams also helped with many of these concerns, they interestingly did little to encourage the young students to speak up about them. It was only when they were surrounded by other women did they gain sufficient confidence to air their concerns.

"My take on these findings is that gender parity helped in some ways, but it couldn’t address all the problems. We often assume that if the playing field is level, with equal numbers of women and men, women will participate. But in fields where strong gender stereotypes already exist, it’s not enough. Overriding gender stereotypes sometimes requires creating ’microenvironments’ that have more than gender parity. This may involve the occasional experience of working in small teams with a high concentration of female peers that encourage women to jump in, speak up and help their team solve technical problems," the authors conclude.

Given that men dominate the STEM professions, this is something that companies, universities and policy makers need to consider if they wish to attract more women into the field. Only when there is less concern about how one is percieved will female scientists and engineers be free to showcase the full range of their talents.

Do you think that having more women in STEM teams would have a positive or negative effect? Your thoughts and comments below please...

Female peers in small work groups enhance women's motivation, verbal participation, and career aspirations in engineering