Do Female Students Need ‘Stereotype Inoculation’?


Are you a female STEM student (or wannabe STEM student) suffering from a stereotype infection? Then, according to new research recently described in Inside Higher Ed (“Inoculation Against Stereotype”), you should take a course from a female instructor to inoculate yourself.

The research, based on a study at U Mass Amherst by Nilanjana Dasgupta, associate professor of psychology  and some graduate students there,
found notable benefits for female students (and for male students as well, though to a lesser degree) to being taught by women — and may point to strategies that would keep more women in STEM fields. The idea behind the research is that certain strategies “inoculate” female students against the sense that they don’t belong or are not likely to succeed in math and science courses.
…. Dasgupta said that the evidence suggests that women who are exposed to women doing math and science successfully end up with “stereotype inoculation” in which they gain confidence. The obvious solution from the new research — which Dasgupta said wasn’t realistic — would be to have only women teach introductory STEM courses.

"The issue is not to have only women teach women — I don't think we need to go that far," she said.Why not? Well, it would be unfair, Dasgupta acknowledged. "Since many professors value their more specialized seminars," she said, "forcing women to teach all the intro courses would be unfair" — to the women, not to the men barred from teaching some courses (why only introductory ones?) because of their gender.
Dasgupta says we don’t need to go so far as to have only women teach women, but  how far should we go? Does her data reveal whether, say, black women are more likely to stay in STEM if taught by black women? What if black women do better with instructors who are black men than white women? Do Hispanic women do better with white male than black women instructors? What if beefing up the numbers of women STEM instructors drove out more men than it retained women? Should the preferences of students in introductory STEM be given as much weight in the hiring and assignments practices in those fields as this study seems to imply?
Dasgupta disdains recent studies, such as the large one I discussed here recently ("Infidels in the Church of Diversity" ), that women’s own choices, not discrimination, explains a great deal of why they, well, choose the fields they do. Her research, she claims, shows that “choice isn’t as simple as people think,” suggesting instead 
that the meaning of choices, of what it means to choose math or science, is more complicated. Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don't like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don't belong.
Dasgupta's argument is in the tradition of those feminists who see women as so victimized by oppressive stereotypes that they are incapable of free choice. "There is nothing new about this attempt (dare one call it patronizing?)," I wrote of an earlier dramatic example, "to deny and denigrate women's choices." 
A generation ago, for example, in its spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to hold Sears, Roebuck responsible for the "underrepresentation" of women in such jobs as installing home heating and cooling systems, … Alice Kessler Harris, a prominent women's historian, … testified that … women's own choices and interests have nothing to do with the jobs they take. In fact, she was so hostile to the idea that the system leaves women any room at all to choose that she insisted on placing the terms "choice" and "women's interests" in quotes, and even went so far as to deny that women themselves choose their own major subjects in college or that women business owners choose the types of businesses they own.
Finally, apparently left unsaid in this study is any discussion of why it is so important to persuade or induce more women to enter STEM fields, something I’ve discussed here before ( "The Misguided Push for STEM Diversity"   and "More 'Diversity' STEM-Selling"). "Where is the evidence," I asked in the first of those posts, 
that the enormous costs involved in trying to find, create, cajole, hire, promote, etc., more women and black and Hispanic scientists will produce more top flight scientists than would recruiting even more decidedly not "underrepresented" Asians and Jews? ….  If we need more scientists, we need them of whatever hue or sex….
Perhaps the stereotype against which we need the most inoculation is the stereotype that today’s women students are incapable of making free, independent choices about their own lives.
Now new research summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education,  "Online, People Learn Best from Virtual 'Helpers' That Resemble Them"  , argues that women and minorities prefer instructors of their own race and gender even if those instructors are not real people but artificial, computer-generated "'helpers,' or virtual agents that pop up on a screen and guide people through a program."
Most people might think it odd that one of the clearest effects of our mania for "diversity" is that people are  increasingly race- and gender-conscious and thus estranged from people who don't look like themselves, but it's not odd at all. It's entirely predictable.
John Rosenberg is a lapsed historian blogging at Discriminations.


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