Researchers study perceptions of anxiety and women in STEM

by Wally Joe Cook | 3/27/18 2:30am

A study by a team of researchers from Dartmouth, the University at Buffalo and Carnegie Mellon University has found that gender affects an individual’s perception of women’s anxiety in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Men are more likely than women to attribute this anxiety and self-doubt to internal factors, while women usually attribute such emotions to external factors.

The study, titled “The Effect of Gender on Attributions for Women’s Anxiety and Doubt in a Science Narrative,” was published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in February by Dartmouth postdoctoral researcher Gili Freedman, University of Buffalo associate professor of communication Melanie Green, Dartmouth film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan, Buffalo graduate research assistant Kaitlin Fitzgerald and professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computer Interaction Institute Geoff Kaufman. Kaufman has also worked at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor lab, which designs games to spur social change.

Freedman said the study used narratives about women’s experiences in STEM to research gender-based attribution biases, focusing on how men and women may differently attribute anxieties in a STEM class. Participants in the study read one story, among a selection, about an undergraduate woman taking a STEM class.

“The narratives were reflecting women’s real-life experiences in STEM,” she said. “This particular research comes out of a series of experiments we have done using narratives.”

Flanagan said that the narratives referenced the experiences of actual undergraduate women in STEM.

“In the stories, [the female main character] expressed having anxiety or self-doubt,” Freedman said.

She added that in the stories, which all focused on women’s experiences in STEM, it was ambiguous whether the instructor harbored any biases against women. For example, in one of the stories, a professor asks all of the women in the course to stay after class for extra help, but not any of the men. After reading these narratives, the study’s subjects were asked why they believed the main female character was experiencing anxiety.

“What we found across these three studies was that women were more likely than men to think that [the character] was experiencing anxiety or self-doubt because of factors like instructor bias or being aware of stereotypes about women in STEM,” Freedman said. “Men were more likely than women to think that her anxiety stemmed from just not being prepared enough for the class.”

She added that while this was the average trend in responses, some men and women still responded differently.

Flanagan said that the study’s results, which demonstrated gender differences in reactions to the stories, were compatible with current understandings of stereotypes and other types of biases.

“There is a disconnect in male students’ understanding of the difficulties that women students face,” she said. “Men were much less likely than women to attribute the student’s anxiety to any institutional bias, professor bias or stereotypes.”

According to Flanagan, who led the research team, the study is part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation to investigate the difficulties women in STEM face. The project is currently in its fourth year, she said.

Flanagan and Freedmen both emphasized the importance of studying women’s experiences in STEM.

According to Freedman, there is still an underrepresentation of women in STEM and negative stereotypes about women’s abilities can affect their willingness to enter those fields.

In order to increase female representation in STEM fields, it is important to understand how people think about the presence of women in STEM, Freedman said. She added that the study’s researchers were interested in discovering whether gender impacts attributions of emotions.

Fitzgerald said the study provided an opportunity to address bias in education in a new manner.

“Much of the research has centered on how women and other minority students are affected by bias and how we can educate those students about how they are affected,” Fitzgerald said. “This research is important because it goes beyond that to attempt to increase gender bias literacy for the population in general. The question should be, ‘What is everyone else’s role in the problem?’”

Flanagan said that the goal of the research is to change the mechanisms that create bias and make STEM fields more inclusive for women.

“Women identify the problem as something that is familiar and men identify the problem as something that is a particular student’s problem,” Flanagan said. “Men are not seeing the systemic biases as much as the women are. That is something that we need to address in deeper conversations about STEM classrooms.”

She added that a large problem is the culture created by STEM classrooms that is inhospitable to women.

Fitzgerald said that in order to change this culture, the next stage of research may look into crafting narratives with micro-affirmations instead of micro-aggressions.

“We’re shifting from ‘How do we raise awareness about these negative things?’ to ‘How do we use narratives to introduce these positive welcoming experiences for women?’” she said.