Women make up about 60 percent of biology undergraduates in the United States, but only 36 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of full professors. It’s a significant gap in representation, but pinpointing a reason for the precipitous drop-off remains a challenge. Sehoya Cotner and Cissy Ballen want to figure it out.
“Biology isn’t a male-stereotyped field yet there’s this female attrition as women progress through the STEM pathway that’s leading them away from science, and this extends to other underrepresented groups as well,” says Ballen, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning. Ballen who works with Cotner, a member of the department’s faculty.
Ballen discovered an interest in STEM equity, an area of inquiry focused on issues like the gender gap in the sciences, while still an undergraduate. Before heading off to graduate school, Ballen worked in Cotner’s lab. The pair investigated the impact of instructor gender on students’ confidence in their ability to do science. They found that female students with female instructors and teaching assistants gained the most confidence.
A transatlantic experiment
During a trip to the University of Bergen in Norway to present the research, Cotner saw an opportunity to dig deeper into the dynamics that might be driving their findings.
“One of the Norwegian faculty commented that I would not see such gender differences in confidence in Norway. That got me thinking,” says Cotner, who notes that Norway consistently ranks at the very top in measures of gender equality. “I wanted to test that assertion.”
With Ballen done with graduate school and back in Cotner’s lab, the duo embarked on a transatlantic research collaboration that’s yielding new insights into gender disparities in levels of engagement in biology courses. Cotner and Ballen began surveying Norwegian students and making in-class observations of student participation.
Initial results suggest that the female students in Norway who took part in the study participated in class at a lower rate than their Minnesota counterparts. While they were surprised at first, the researchers have since developed a hypothesis about why that may be, and it starts with the way courses are structured.
One big difference: The students in Norway learned in a traditional lecture hall, while the Minnesota undergraduates learned in activelearning classrooms in which students work in smaller groups. In active-learning classrooms, women participated roughly on par with their enrollment in the class. In the Norwegian lecture hall-based course, women participated far less than would be expected given their numbers.
“We began to realize that the social climate overall may matter less than the microclimate of the classroom,” says Cotner. She suggests that the decentralized, team-oriented structure of activelearning classrooms may lower “stereotype threat” in which a person feels more risk associated with an action when they perceive themselves associated with a stereotype. In this case, says Cotner, women may be wary of participation in large lecture hallstyle classes for fear of being seen as less capable or qualified than men if they make a mistake. So, better not to participate at all.
“We think women in active-learning classrooms may experience less risk,” says Cotner. “The space is more student-centered, which makes communication easier. And once you've discussed a topic with a small group of peers, you might be more willing to share thoughts with the whole class.”
Comparing classroom participation in Norway and Minnesota is just one line of inquiry in the area of STEM equity for Cotner and Ballen. They also launched a network with institutions in several states to investigate barriers related to gender, ethnicity and first-generation college students.
“We're excited to test this idea that the classroom climate may be more important than regional effects relating to overall social climate,” says Cotner. The researchers are also looking at how instructors grade.
“We see a trend in many classes. As faculty migrate to a diversity of assessment strategies such as in-class quizzes, assignments and reports in addition to high-stakes exams, females perform better in the course on the whole,” says Cotner. “We're currently testing this model in several courses. Stay tuned!”