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Role Models May Provide ‘Social Vaccine’
April 1, 2011

New studies by social psychologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggest that academic contact with women who have succeeded in science, math and engineering can enhance positive attitudes and boost self-confidence among girls and young women who, in other situations, feel less confident and interested in science majors or careers.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, associate professor of social psychology at UMass Amherst. Photo courtesy of UMass Amherst.

For young female students at the beginning of college who are considering science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors and careers, having contact with female scientists and engineers as professors or through websites, for example, plays a critical role in helping them imagine themselves as scientists. For male students, the professor’s gender is less important, but for female students it makes a big difference in STEM classes, says Nilanjana Dasgupta, who conducted the research with graduate students Jane Stout, Matthew Hunsinger and Melissa McManus.

Findings are in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers conducted two laboratory experiments and one longitudinal field study in a real college-level calculus class to explore ways to intervene early to protect young women’s self-concept from negative feelings about STEM subjects. They found that exposing them to expert female role models could inoculate them against negative stereotypes. The longitudinal study also found that the benefits endured over time.

“We’re using the term ‘stereotype inoculation’ as a medical metaphor. Like a vaccine, female role models inoculate or protect girls and women’s interest in STEM professions and make them more resilient to societal stereotypes (the virus),” Prof. Dasgupta explains. “What was most exciting to us was that implicit negative feelings toward math expressed by these young women reversed and became strongly positive after they had contact with female role models in math and science. Similarly, implicit dis-identification with math became strong identification after they had contact with female role models.”

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