It’s Not About Changing People; It’s About Changing Contexts

Broadly shared beliefs change when enough experiences around us disconfirm and replace our unconscious, stereotypical associations – that is one of the reasons why we need more male pre-k teachers, more African American college professors, more female CEOs, and so forth. Beliefs also change when we expand the way we understand occupations and roles.

In Unlocking the Clubhouse, Margolis and Fisher (2002) examined the many influences contributing to the gender gap in the field of computing. Over a period of four years, the researchers performed interviews with more than 100 computer science students of both sexes from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as conducting classroom observations and having conversations with hundreds of college and high school faculty. A recurring theme from these interviews was that a computer scientist is a “geek,” someone who can’t stop thinking about computers, hacking and so on. All participants alluded to this image at some point. Then, when they were asked the extent to which they thought they fit that image; 3/4 of men agreed, compared with only about 1/3 of the women. One conclusion stemming from the work is that the image we hold of computer scientists needs to be expanded and, frankly, portrayed more accurately. The authors concluded that it is not women who need to be “changed” but rather, our understanding of what computer science as a discipline of study is all about.

In another experiment, researchers Murphy, Steele & Gross (2007) recruited male and female STEM majors and showed them a promotional video of a future STEM conference, depicting either an unbalanced ratio of men to women or a balanced ratio. Female students who viewed the unbalanced, majority male video exhibited more cognitive and physiological vigilance, and reported a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference than did women who viewed the gender-balanced video. Men were unaffected by this situational cue. This suggests that we need to make contexts inviting for those we want to attract, and “engineer” situations so that everyone feels that they fit in.**

Feeling socially connected is a basic human need that can predict a wide range of favorable outcomes. Walton & Cohen (2007) showed that stigmatization can trigger “belonging uncertainty,” a state in which people are sensitive to information diagnostic of the quality of their social connections. The researchers showed that belonging uncertainty undermined the motivation and achievement of people whose group was negatively characterized in academic settings. Students were led to believe that they might have few friends in an intellectual domain; while white students were unaffected, black students displayed a drop in their sense of belonging and potential. Then the researchers designed an intervention that mitigated doubts about social belonging in college, which raised the academic achievement (e.g., college grades) of black students, but not of white students.

What’s important about the three studies I highlighted above is that it is possible to reverse these persistent social trends just by tweaking the characteristics of our local contexts. It’s not so much about patting women or other disadvantaged groups on the back or saying “toughen up” (as many of the comments on the Times story advised). Rather, the research suggests that we need to think carefully about what our organizations project, who needs to be recruited, how jobs and roles are characterized, and what images and symbols dominate our organizations.

A diverse teaching force can help erode stereotypes and biases by changing the interpersonal configuration of actors in a given setting, and allowing more stereotype-disconfirming experiences to permeate the society. Commitment to diversity sends a strong institutional message. Organizational policies, laws and institutions have an expressive importance — they signal a consensus about what we value and desire as a society. These two factors combined can favorably shape the aspirations and behaviors of students and  educators alike, the lenses through which they judge their our own potential (and the potential of others), and ultimately their aspirations, choices and accomplishments.


* In addition to the status scholarship, which I discuss in the post, MIT professor Mary Rowe wrote about “micro-inequities” in 1973 defining them as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’”

** Recent research suggests that this needs to be done well or it can backfire. In an article published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, researchers investigated the reactions produced by the “over-representation” of minority images in a flyer advertising a local university. The study found that white students felt more positively about a flyer that overrepresented the proportion of Asian students on their campus than about a flyer with more accurate depictions. However, students of Asian ethnicity (a stigmatized minority group in Australia) felt less favorable towards the advertisement that showed many Asian faces than toward a flyer that showed a more realistic number.