A Few Encouraging Words Can Change the Lives of Female STEM Students

A new study looks at the impact that validating words can have on the success of female students in STEM courses of study. Hero Images/Getty Images

Feeling isolated is no fun, even when what you're doing is. Maybe that's why more 60-year-old men don't take ballet classes. After all, sometimes that feeling of being an outlier or interloper can keep you from doing things that actually interest you. A recent study out of Arizona State University finds that, at least when it comes to girls and young women, a single letter of encouragement from a female role model can prevent them from dropping out of a science, technology, engineering or math — known collectively, and trendily, today as STEM — class.

STEM fields have historically been dominated by men, so it's not uncommon for women in these fields to feel like they don't belong. Sarah Herrmann, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at ASU, knew this feeling from personal experience, and that informed how she structured her investigation into how to help keep girls in STEM classes, when the obstacles to pursuing careers in these areas are more pronounced for them than they are for boys, and young women drop out at a higher rate.

Herrmann refers to the path of women into STEM careers a "leaky pipeline."

"You have fewer female professors in STEM fields than you do post-docs, than you do graduate students," says Herrmann in a press release. "And that means that, essentially, there are fewer women as you get further up the line to serve as role models for the women in STEM today. So any way we can expose female STEM students to female role models is helpful."

And her study suggests female role models might be just what girls and young women need in order to stick with STEM education.

For her research, Herrmann followed students enrolled in two introductory STEM classes at ASU: a chemistry class and a psychology class. The students took part in the study after finding out the scores of their first exams in each class. They were then randomly assigned either to complete a demographic survey or read a brief, encouraging letter written by a female graduate student that essentially told them: First, you belong in this class; second, science takes work; and third your test scores aren't a quantified reflection of your intelligence.

In the chemistry class, the female students who read the encouraging letter were 77 percent less likely to withdraw from the course or receive a grade of D or below. In the psychology class, the female students who received a letter were 62 percent less likely to withdraw from the course or receive a D or below. In both classes, these students' grades were also higher by the end of the course than those of female students who had not been sent the letter.

"There are two parts of this research I find particularly exciting," says Herrmann. "First, the implications for brief psychological interventions, and secondly, what it says about the effect of role models for women's performance in STEM areas."

Herrmann suggests that interventions like these could take many forms in college classes: a guest lecture by a female scientist, a short video, or even a text.

"We're just touching the surface here," she says. "While we've discovered some things that are effective at increasing women's persistence in these fields, there is still more to be done."

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