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UD researcher gets $1.8M to study gender inequality in STEM

Courtesy: University of Delaware
Chad Forbes' research looks at how female science students perform on problems while faced with gender stereotypes.

The growing fields of science, technology, engineering and math are mostly dominated by men. That's because women tend to leave those jobs sooner, in disproportionately high numbers.

One University of Delaware researcher says that's because STEM classrooms are so male-dominated. Now, he's getting $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation to study the problem.


Assistant Prof. Chad Forbes looks at identity threats for women in STEM, where concern about fulfilling a stereotype makes that happen:

"Essentially, when women or girls are outnumbered by boys -- having male instructors, things like that, posters on the wall that depict maybe disproportionate amounts of men and women or boys and girls in these kind of laboratory contexts -- and a lot of these things are outside the conscious awareness of these individuals, but -- that's enough to kind of trigger these things," he says.

Forbes says ideally, STEM classrooms and laboratories would be evenly split between genders. But to make that happen, he says, they have to stop women leaving the field through faster means:

"We've gotta plug up the leaks in the pipeline, right? And increase that sample size or that pool of women in STEM fields," he says. "That needs to happen first and foremost before you can kind of invoke these more palatable options, I guess."

Forbes' research suggests that telling women about the problem of identity threat can help. He's also looking at everything from how women in STEM respond to working in groups of different gender compositions, to the impact of small steps like including more women on posters in STEM classrooms.

He'll use the NSF grant to conduct experiments where women are exposed to various stereotype threats and asked to solve problems to analyze their performance. He's also working with Newark High School to see how stereotypes affect girls' interest in STEM as teenagers.


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