Thursday, April 20, 2017

STEMing the Tide: Brilliant Lecture On How Female Experts and Peers Act as "Social Vaccines" to Protect Young Women's Self-Concept in STEM

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a Distinguished Faculty Lecture at UMass Amherst given by the experimental social psychologist Dr.Nilanjana "Buju" Dasgupta. Dr. Dasgupta is renowned for her research on implicit prejudice and her work has been recognized with numerous awards.She is a faculty member in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UMass.

The title of her lecture yesterday: STEMing the tide: How female experts and peers act as "social vaccines" to protect young women's self-concept in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics." With such a title, I had to go to the talk plus Dr. Dasgupta is committed to making a difference in the world and her research is fascinating.

Professor Dasgupta was introduced by our Provost, Dr. Katherine E. Newman.
Her lecture was brilliant. She noted that females, by not majoring in STEM fields, which tend to be some of the most highly paying ones, end up with income inequality. Although females have the freedom to say no to STEM, are their choices really free?
She began her lecture by thanking her husband, her sister, numerous colleagues, as well as students, including undergraduates.

Her lecture was true to the press release (but that did not capture her eloquence, energy, and passion).  She discussed how constraints can be lifted to allow students real freedom to pursue any academic and professional path, especially ones where their group is underrepresented. She highlighted results  from a decade of research identifying people and environments in high-achieving academic settings that act as “social vaccines” to inoculate young women’s self-confidence, motivation and persistence, protecting them against negative stereotypes.

Her prescriptions from data to policy are all based on rigorous scientific research and, if there is a will from institutions, eminently doable. For example, she made the following recommendations:

1. There is a need to increase students' contact with female faculty (we are speaking here of female students in STEM, in particular).

2. Colleges need to hire more female faculty in STEM.

3. Colleges must fund peer mentoring in STEM, beginning with students in their first year of college, since the benefits last over their college careers. Evidence for this was obtained from a study of engineering students at UMass Amherst and the results were clear and definitive.

4. Showcase successes of technical women in classes. This can be done through guest speakers and even having photos of successful females in your lecture slides!  Here I was reminded of the STEMGems book, by Stephanie Espy, which features 44 females in STEM, to inspire young females. I was honored to be one of the 44 selected for this book, which I have given out to some of my PhD students, my daughter (she is a STEMGem), and nieces.
5. For classes involving teamwork (a big part of business education as well as engineering) pay attention to the gender composition. It is especially important to have females motivated in STEM and having confidence.

6.  Timing matters - juncture points are especially critical - as when one matriculates in college or then decides on graduate programs.

After her lecture she was awarded the Chancellor's Medal from the UMass Amherst Chancellor, Dr. Kumble Subbaswamy.
Multiple times Dr. Dasgupta was recognized with voluminous applause from the audience. It was also interesting to hear her say that STEM majors are more likely to have a parent or sibling in STEM.

The Q&A that followed was also excellent and demonstrated the interest from the audience in the topic. And, yes, there were quite a few males present, which was great.

I never had a single female professor in STEM during my Brown University undergraduate days. When pursuing my PhD there in Applied Mathematics, with a specialty in Operations Research, I was drawn to Stella Dafermos, the only female professor in either the School of Engineering or the Division of Applied Math, in which she held joint appointments. She became my doctoral dissertation advisor and I her first PhD student. STEM was highly valued in my family and I always loved Math and saw it as the absolute truth. I will be graduating soon my 20th PhD student, and 10th female.