Seeing as how this is the week of “fitting in” — or not so much — my ears perked up the other day when I was having a chat with a prof whose area of research includes career and workplace issues. When she mentioned a study that suggested that women may avoid situations — like math or engineering — when they feel outnumbered, I instantly thought Undecided.
I also thought of my daughters, who excelled in math in high school, but never pursued it. (I did — for one quarter of college. But that’s another story.) I also thought of women like one family member who has been a lawyer for years — but never really liked it. At one point, in fact, she took a career aptitude test (like that one our elusive Ms. X went searching for when she was in college) and found that all the results pointed in one direction: engineering. She wasn’t surprised. Just somewhat regretful.
But back to the study (you can link to a pdf here) in question. Researchers Mary Murphy, Claude Steele and James Gross found that when women math, science and engineering undergrads simply watched a video, pitching a fictional conference, where men outnumbered women, they showed the physical signs of threat — faster heart rates and sweating — and reported a lower sense of belonging, and less desire to participate in the conference at all. The researchers also found that the women who watched the gender unbalanced video were more vigilant of their surroundings overall.
All of which suggests one reason why women may avoid fields like math and engineering: it’s not “innate differences”, as erstwhile Harvard President Lawrence Summers infamously suggested back in 2005. It may be that we just don’t feel welcome.
All of which makes sense when we are talking science and related fields. But what about the workplace in general? Could these “social identity threats” be one reason we are often unsure of ourselves? Agonize over career decisions? Look over our shoulders? Stick with safe and risk-free women-friendly careers (which, incidentally, might be more comfy, but fall lower on the pay scale)?
Sometimes it’s the threat, not the reality, that does us in. Why we end up side-stepping opportunites instead of marching right in, loaded for bear. Add it all up and you just might find that, math rules notwithstanding, two and two equals five after all.