The Belief in Meritocracy as an Obstacle for Minorities in STEM/M

The fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine are often constructed as fields in which scientific ability is all that matters for success. Topics such as gender and race are often not discussed despite the fact that the majority of members of those fields are still white men. An interesting interview study by Angela Johnson illustrates how this construction of science as a meritocracy can negatively impact minorities, namely female science students of colour in the US.

The author acknowledges the good intentions of constructing science as a race and gender neutral field – because none of these variables should matter, but she also highlights that this can have negative, unintended consequences as it makes gender and race topics that cannot be openly discussed. She notes: “Belief in the meritocracy of science made the way that some laboratories were divided by race and ethnicity seem like a matter of personal choice (which, in a sense, it probably was). When students felt otherwise (…) there was no room for these suspicions within the race-neutral culture of science.”

This unintended, but also unaddressed, segregation of minority students is especially important in the light of findings that suggest that a lack of fit and belonging in a field has severe negative consequences for motivation and career intentions.

How Do Role Models Work?

We’ve highlighted the importance of role models in general and female role models in particular in a number of quite a few of our past posts. Research suggests that role models serve different functions and lead to different outcomes and that gender is not necessarily important for all of them. However, other studies suggest that gender does matter, especialy in domains in women are under-represented, and one reason why that might be the case is that they can change stereotypes.

STEM/M fields in general and surgery in particular are stereotypically associated with men and maleness. The first person one might imagine when thinking about a surgeon is likely to be a man and when asked to describe a surgeon, stereotypically masculine traits such as “cold” might be used. The so called Stereotype Inoculation Model developed by Nilanjala Dasgupta argues that role models might act as a “social vaccine” and inoculate against these stereotypes which prevent women from entering or staying in STEM/M fields.

She proposes that when exposed to other minority members in one’s domain (e.g. other women in surgery), minority members can identify with this person, which then leads to changes in stereotypes and a stronger identification with the field (e.g. with surgery), but also a more positive attitude towards the field, social belonging in the field, perceived threat and one’s perceptions of one’s own abilities.

Thus, while male role models might be just as effective in some regards (e.g. for learning by emulation), visible female role models in surgery are important – not just for those women already on their path to becoming surgeons, but also for those who might not have made their career choices yet.

Male and Female Role Models in Academic Medicine

The lack of female role models is often cited as one reason of the under-representation of women in various fields – surgery among them – and psychological research shows that role models can indeed be very beneficial. They can teach us how to reach our goals, demonstrate that goals are attainable and inspire us to adopt new goals. However, some women in surgery argue that role models don’t necessarily need to be female and that male role models can be just as effective.

A study by Lori Bakken suggests that it depends. Women and men in different career stages were asked about their own ability beliefs with regards to a number of skills such as scientific writing. They were further asked about who they envisioned as an expert role model while making those assessments as well as a number of questions about this role model. For example, they were asked which important qualities the expert had. Results showed that male and female participants who described a male role model did not differ in what skills they based their role model selection on. “Multiple publications”, “supportiveness” and “scientific knowledge” were most widely reported both by male and female participants. Female participants who had chosen a female expert, however, reported “problem solving abilities” and “communication skills” more frequently in comparison to men who had chosen men.

Thus, it seems that men make just as good role models for women who are looking for similar qualities in a role model as their male counterparts do. However, for those who value other qualities such as problem solving ability or communication skills, female role models might be more important.

Working Part-Time?

Last week we reported some interesting findings on the effects of different arrangement aimed at helping women in the workplace on female physician’s career motivation. Today, we would like to focus on other effects of those measures, working part-time. This measure aims to give women, especially those with kids, the opportunity to spend more time at home without abandoning their careers. However, a study by Rosemary Crompton and Clare Lyonette shows how problematic part-time work can be. In their qualitative study with accountants and physicians they find that working part-time is perceived as quite detrimental to women’s careers and the type of work they can do, especially for physicians working in hospitals. One participant notes:

“a lot of the time the part-time posts are just waiting list initiatives, you know, they need somebody to see this number of back pains or this number of people with such and such, whereas a full-time post, you’re part of a team, you’re setting up a service or doing something a bit more meaningful. So it would be difficult to get the equivalent post as a part-time person, I think.”

The authors also note that women in medicine try to avoid specialties in which part-time work might be detrimental (such as surgery) and prefer going into General Practice, which is perceived as more family friendly. On the bright side – at least for all you women in medicine – , the authors find that women in medicine fare considerably better than those in accountancy. However, whether that holds true for women in surgery, is another question.

Do We Need Female Role Models or Do We Need Atypical Role Models?

Female role models are often thought of as a solution for the under-representation of women in certain fields such as surgery and there is indeed quite some research that backs up the fact that women make more effective role models for other women and girls. However, other research shows that this is not the whole story.

A study by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues investigated the effect of stereotypical (“nerdy”) and atypical (“normal”) computer science students on women’s interest in the field. They found that gender did not matter, but that those interacting with an atypical member showed more interest in computer science and believed that they could succeed in the field more strongly. The reason for this seemed to be that women saw the atypical computer science students as more similar to themselves.

Now, the stereotypical traits for a surgeon are certainly different than those for a computer scientist. Nevertheless, both stereotypes have more in common with traits typically associated with men (e.g. competence for computer scientists and assertiveness for a surgeon). So in a way, these findings are quite promising as they suggest that both men and women can inspire girls and women to become surgeons as long as they are seen as atypical and, more importantly, similar to oneself. This illustrates an important point about role models: We need a diverse range of role models in surgey – after all, nobody is going to be seen as similar to oneself by everyone. And if we want surgery to be a diverse field, we need to make sure that we communicate that it already is.

Demanding Careers, Work-Life-Balance, Family Life and Happiness

Just like surgery, academia is a time consuming career to have and poses a challenge to a good work-life-balance. Radhika Nagpal, a professor for computer science at Harvard, is a woman who made it into a field that is – just like surgery – still very male dominated. In a recent guest blog post on Scientific American she talks about how she manages her life, her career, her family and her happiness. Although not all her points may apply to surgery, her article is certainly worth a read and contains some useful advice for managing a demanding career in general.

In her article she describes seven things she did to make sure to enjoy her life and her career despite its demands:

  • Pretending that her position was a seven year post-doc to take the pressure off her and rather enjoy being able to work with some amazing people in her field
  • Stopping to take advice and rather go her own way (such as focusing on her research instead of trying to network like crazy)
  • Creating a “feelgood” e-mail folder that contained her successes such as job offers and which she could read when things weren’t going as well
  • Working fixed hours in fixed amounts – both in her career and as a parent.
  • Trying to be the best “whole” person that she can. Realising that it is impossible to be the best, most dedicated academic who spends all her time working as well as the best parent who dedicates her entire life to her kids and the best partner who is there for her other half in every moment, supporting him always and unconditionally, she decided that it was a much more attainable goal to be neither of those but rather the best “whole” person who combines a little bit of all of this.
  • Finding real friends outside of her field who are not concerned with her career.
  • Having fun “now” rather than constantly working towards a future in which the fun is hopefully going to happen.

To read the full article (do it! It’s really inspiring!), click here: The awesomest 7 year postdoc or how I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure track faculty life