First community project! What evidence is there for the efficacy of role models?

There have been a couple of articles doing the rounds recently about whether or not role models help encourage women/girls in STEM: 

The Atlantic: The Problem With Praising Famous Scientists
TES Connect: ‘Sticking bananas in liquid nitrogen doesn’t work’

And there’s a discussion of them on this thread

I feel that the Atlantic and TES pieces rely on opinion rather than evidence, and would like to know what we actually do know about the efficacy of role models. So if you have some time, please add links to this thread to research about the effectiveness of role models, whether in STEM or elsewhere, and whether for women or men or both. 

I’ll start with the bit of research that inspired Ada Lovelace Day:

“Someone like me can be successful”: Do college students need same-gender role models?

My aim is to get a good idea of what the literature says, and maybe then collaboratively define a research question that we can try to get answered somehow. 

Here are a couple by the same woman - not had a chance to read through yet, as digging out housework articles, but she seems to suggest that ‘nerdy’ stereotypes put off women. This might have relevance then for role models that are used?

Do female and male role models who embody STEM stereotypes hinder women’s anticipated success in STEM?

Enduring influence of stereotypical computer science role models on women’s academic aspirations

I’ll look for some more when I’m free!

Thanks Eniphaest. Those both have interesting abstracts, which also seem to contradict Penelope Lockwood’s assertion that women do need female role models! 

This is part of the active, interesting and complex research field of career decision making, so there’s literature out there.

Unsurprisingly, you’ve got Lockwood already.

Here’s Pat Morton for the National HE STEM Program on role models and case studies in career decision-making - it’s not an academic paper as such but has links to some - I note Phil Hodkinson figures, which is always a good sign (the good Professor has, sadly, retired).

Might be worth seeing if you can get hold of a copy of Betz and Fitzgerald’s book on the career psychology of women from 1987 (ref here: It’s cracking on a bit but might be helpful.

(edited to fix quote)

Ooh great stuff, Ken. Thanks! 

Yay! i did a mod thing :smiley:

This is an interesting topic, and I hope I will find some time in my life to read these links (but right now I am not holding my breath…)

The theory of careers decision making is very interesting. Here’s Phil Hodkinson’s lecture summarising the field and his significant contribution to it, from 2008, if anyone’s interested - it’s reasonably accessible (I ought to include a Sociology Warning, but nothing too heavy), and well-referenced.

The current thinking is that friends and family are becoming more important. Parents are felt to be taking a more active role in the careers decisions of their children, and certainly that is my experience as I roam the land giving lectures telling people that the media lies to them explaining the graduate labour market.

Has anyone looked to see if the rise of parental influence is concurrent with the increase in tuition fees? is the primary unintended consequence of fees to infantilise young adults?

Has anyone looked to see if the rise of parental influence is concurrent with the increase in tuition fees? is the primary unintended consequence of fees to infantilise young adults?

They’re rising at similar times, but it seems that a key reason, at least for UK HE, is simply that more parents themselves have been to university and have a view on it. Certainly in the UK, the start of the graduate increase in parental influence and the rise in ‘helicopter parenting’ (so called because of the way parents hover around their kids and swoop in the protect them at the first sign of trouble) predates even Labour’s first fees imposition and may very well have been at least partly imported from the US.

But yes, anecdotally, the increased cost is another driving force, the view that the graduate jobs market has become more competitive (this is not necessarily correct over the long term), as are the  various species of absolute drivel about HE you read in the media and which parents, alas, believe.

This is probably the point at which I cite Anderberg, Chevalier and Wadsworth’s ‘Anatomy Of A Health Scare’ and its finding, from the MMR scandal which we’re all familiar with, that the rise of the Internet seems to have allowed, especially the educated middle classes, unparalleled access to data and information that they sometimes overestimate their ability to parse properly. This is an exceptionally interesting topic but probably straying a fair distance from the original question.

Very aware that I’m about to mimic the articles and not present solid evidence, but…

The arguments being put forward in these pieces are focusing on the value of role models in converting people to consider STEM based careers, and the part that is missing for me in the conclusions is the potential positive value of role models for those who have already made the decision to and are looking for support / evidence of inclusion and similarity to their experience etc - in marketing terms the difference between converting / changing behaviours (hard) and positively reinforcing decisions (easier, somewhat). 

As a marketer, I would suggest that these articles are making the assumption that role model efforts have failed because they think that if they did work they’d be swamped with success right now. It’s basically another version of the old ‘sex sells’ argument in advertising with the article writers experiencing the equivalent of a client why their genius campaign of a girl in a bikini sat on the photocopier has produced lots of interest in their free calendar but not sold any product. 

While still very early stages, my own research into diversity within geek culture strongly suggests that role models are very key for people who do identify as, for example being a fan of science fiction or having an interest in STEM subjects, but don’t feel represented in that broader community. 

Apologies if that’s slightly off topic / already well established, but in terms of my responding to those articles it would seem that they are suggesting role models have no positive effect or benefits whatsoever whereas perhaps they are really ignoring the value in retention by focusing purely on recruitment as it were. 

ALD for example would appear to be just as beneficial as focal point for people who who already strongly identify themselves with STEM as it is a means for reaching new potential audiences.

I think your analysis is spot on, Tom. 

I think this is part of the complexity that is the whole problem of women in STEM – it’s not just about getting girls to study STEM, it’s also about keeping women in STEM and then seeing better representation in the higher echelons of academia and business. And role models are one part of a particularly thorny set of issues around girls entering STEM fields and the retention of women in STEM jobs, and can’t by themselves solve that particular problem. Amazing role models won’t trump social conditioning, peer pressure, cultural problems and discrimination. 

However, I think that militating against role models, as these articles do, is missing the point that we might actually have fewer women in STEM now than if we hadn’t made that effort to get role models in front of them. 

It’s the Snakes on a Plane problem: People got really, really excited about the Snakes on a Plane film whilst it was in production, and they even changed bits of the film to reflect the fans’ ideas. The film was still a turkey, though, and people complained that the pre-release buzz had failed. But what you can’t say is whether it was a bigger or smaller turkey than it would have been if there had been no buzz. It may well have been that the film would have been an abject failure without the buzz, rather than just being a bit disappointing in terms of revenue. 

So perhaps the problem now would be worse if the efforts to create role models had not happened. Shame we can’t create a few parallel universes to test it… 

I am totally stealing that Snakes on a Plane example, consider yourself warned!

It is, I think, also a problem of assuming that this kind of promotional activity happens in a vacuum rather than a highly competitive environment. The kind of thinking that assumes that all you need to do is show people the product (e.g the career path) and a moment of revelation will occur. 

I think these articles are avoiding a simple fact that promoting women’s careers in STEM is a question of taking market share, not creating market growth. At it’s most brutal all these efforts need to think not just about how to recruit new people but how to take them away from other career paths that might appear way more attractive. 

It was kind of telling that one article even said we should be pointing towards how studying STEM subjects can help you achieve careers in other ares, including (hah) marketing!

Much as I love marketing, I totally disagree that’s the right approach. 

It’s just a starting point, but given women in STEM is not the market leader as it were, it might help to think not about growing the market but more as a challenger brand and what can be done to take potential graduates away from other options…

Great points Tom, and the marketing perspective is a useful one. We can be of mutual benefit here as well - I’m working with  UK Commission for Employment and Skills data on skills shortages at the moment, and whilst we know there are high profile shortages in things like IT and engineering, there are also emerging shortages as the economy recovers - and one of those areas may be marketing (this is being supported by anecdotal evidence of firms struggling to recruit marketing staff in the last few months).

I know from having worked in consultancy that as you develop more and more technically complex products, then selling and marketing them effectively often demands a certain degree of technical expertise in order for your sell to be credible with techically-aware clients. There is a niche for STEM graduates in those fields - and it may suit people who like explaining science and tech.

Disagree, strongly, though, that the approach of reassuring young people that studying science (or, indeed, any subject viewed as more vocational) does not mean you can only do that career is the wrong one. We know learners worry that taking a vocational subject narrows their options. We point out that it broadens them.

Anecdotally, one of my former students has gone into market research - the first of the ones I have supervised to do so, to my knowledge. Data, data, data, innit? Numerate graduates with tech knowledge. Tech sales was pretty popular in the late 1990s, but really tailed off with the recession etc. Sounds like it will begin to pick up again.

Anecdotally, one of my former students has gone into market research.

So did I, and my current role has a significant element oriented to market research. Am strongly considering going back into it, as it happens. The field needs people who are adept with data.

Really good points, Tom. I’d not thought of it in those terms before, and I think it’s important to look at this problem from all angles. I think this bit is particularly important: 

The kind of thinking that assumes that all you need to do is show people the product (e.g the career path) and a moment of revelation will occur. 

There is an assumption, I think, that STEM careers should be a “calling”, rather than a slightly more mechanistic decision about trying to find something that one likes well enough and might make a career out of. I see this a lot in tech, where you’ll see people who code for a living but not for fun treated with extreme prejudice. The idea is that if you are a programmer, it’s not enough to just know your onions and do your job, you have to be working on your own start-up or project, or helping out on open source projects, or both. You need to be living, breathing, eating and shagging code, and if you’re not, you’re seen a uncommitted and someone not worthy of being hired. 

The problem with this is that it is prejudiced against women who may have other responsibilities that prevent them from coding outside of work, such as having to look after children, care for elderly parents, do the domestic chores (still sadly often done entirely by women, especially in more traditional cultures like America where, ironically, a lot of tech happens). So if you’re a woman,  you get a double-whammy: It’s harder to prove you’re good because of biases against you, and you have less time to do all the things that tech companies want to see coders doing. Indeed, some companies have said that they will not hire coders who don’t contribute to open source projects in their spare time. 

I think something similar is true in science. Science is supposed to take up  your life and demand your total subservience, which doesn’t help women who have other responsibilities and cannot spend all day and night in the lab. But the culture is such that if you refuse to overwork yourself, you’re seen as not being committed, and that you don’t really care about your work or your science. I’ve read so many discussion about work-life balance in tech and science which have exposed the dreadful insecurity and workaholism rife in both fields.

So people are supposed to have this moment of revelation when we show them a STEM career, and then ignore all the crap they see about long hours and how you’re supposed to be wedded to your job, and how you’re not worth if you’re not… That’s so not going to happen! 

I was initially a bit iffy about the point of tempting people into science by explaining they can use their degree to do something else, but I think now that it’s actually a good thing. Because the more people we have with STEM degrees in other fields like marketing or journalism or data analysis, then better a workforce we have, because STEM teaches rigorous thinking practices that are valuable elsewhere. 

Your point about taking market share not expanding the market is also very interesting and one I’d like to discuss further. I wonder which other career paths are most vulnerable to poaching by STEM subjects, and how that might be achieved. If we’re framing the discussion about women in STEM in terms of persuading women to change direction, that’s a very different set of issues to discuss than the usual approach of assuming that a woman’s mind is a blank canvas onto which we must project an attractive picture of STEM which she will then internalise and act on. 

Hm, all very interesting!! 

You make an interesting point about the demands outside of work on people. I also wonder whether it’s something to do with the age people are supposed to go into these things. When I was in my 20s I was incredibly driven and while I didn’t have the confidence to do a PhD at the time I ‘knew’ I wanted to work in academia. The proper job I had at the time was a 24/7 kinda deal (living and working on fishing boats for ~4 weeks at a time!) so I needed to love what I was doing and think it was better than anything else on offer. When I started that job I was still in the ‘study’ mindset and had literally no idea what to do in my evenings other than study for work - it had a rather steep learning curve which I loved.

Now I’m in my 30s I’ve lost a lot of that drive. I want to have my evenings and weekends to pursue other activities outside work and the thought of having to give them up to work, effectively unpaid, isn’t something that appeals. Looking at the academics while I was doing my PhD I really couldn’t see myself doing what they did. It’s not that I’m not capable of it, it’s simply that I didn’t want to. Some of them were women and some (male and female) had kids but they seemed to live and breath their work, spending summers going to conferences, autumns on field courses, christmas revising papers and writing grants, and endless marking, planning of lectures, writing of grants and trying to sqeeze in their own research in the few minutes they had to themselves. It may be that I wasn’t in a happy place anyway so it all seemed like far too much effort for too little reward, but after having worked ‘in the real world’ at times, the idea of sacrificing my life for my career like that seems unsatisfactory.

For a lot of people in academia it seems the route is school, university, post-grad, PhD, post-doc, lectureship. Studying is all they know and they’ve got the habit down pat. Leaving and coming back is really hard (going into my Masters after a couple of years of work was really hard - I had to teach myself how to study all over again). I wonder if part of the reason women leave STEM isn’t so much that it’s hard to get back into it after breaking to have kids, but because they have been able to learn about life ‘outside’ and realise that it’s actually better. Maybe not as intellectually stimulating but there’s less guilt about sitting in front of the TV of an evening rather than reading the latest papers.

I would love to do research, I get such a kick out of it, it’s like nothing else, but the idea of going into academia (at least right now) is one that is completely unappealing. The thing is that this isn’t because I’m a woman, it’s that I’d like a life and I suspect men feel just the same but they have fewer ‘excuses’ to leave.

I’m sure I’m painting a very negative view of academia but I think the best way to get women into STEM would be changing the way academia works (yep, I know, that’s going to be really easy!). The drive for papers means that people split research, churning out papers which means keeping up with the literature becomes impossible, while creating more work for other academics because someone’s got to review those papers before they’re published. And while publishing is the be-all-and-end-all unis now look for all that other ‘public engagement’ stuff that means that you’ve got to do events and talks and while I agree that all that stuff is important, they’re only one person expected to be teacher, administrator, PR, author, mentor and, when there’s time, researcher.

I’ve rambled on for far too long, apologies. The point I’m trying (and probably failing) to make is that getting women into STEM at the moment almost seems like a cruel thing to do, given the pressures on academics. Women may be making the smart choice by staying away. The way to get them into STEM isn’t to convince them that all that hard work and overtime is worth it, but to reform STEM so that everyone can do their job in their normal work hours and have a life outside of work. STEM is a calling for many, but that shouldn’t mean that they have to do nothing but STEM.

Here’s a fab take on what you’re saying, fishnut, from the estimable Athene Donald

You’re right - academia sucks donkey testicles for work-life balance, and it does have an impact on those around you. Of course as a female academic, you’re quite likely to hook up with another academic - I’m unusual among my female peers for having a partner who has a professional non-academic career - so the two body problem is writ rather large in academia.

But you’re overselling academia as the problem in two ways - one is that what you describe is not unique to STEM, as all academia is like that. The second is that academia is a tiny, tiny part of the market place for graduates. And I mean tiny. We have about 50-60  academics depending on how you count it, but at anyone time we have 150 PG students and if funding is good, anything from 50-100 postdocs. How many of them, realistically, are going to make it to a lectureship? We spend a LOT of time saying this to PGs, and most of them either don’t believe us or don’t think about it. Academia has to be a career choice in its own right with a very clear cut plan B because most people make it through luck, not talent (I am living proof of that).

The problem, I think, with academia specifically, is not a modern one, but a historical one. It was such a cloistered and protected position for such a long time, and it hasn’t, as a career, quite thrown off the shackle bits of that, while identifying what is good about it, and trying to keep that. But I don’t think that has a lot of impact on whether women enter and stay in STEM subjects in general, to be honest.

just a thought though. Athene Donald’s blog is great.

You’re right, of course, and I know that the work-life balance problem isn’t unique to STEM, or academia. A friend of mine was a lawyer at a high-powered law firm for a couple of years and left largely because there was a stupid expectation that you would be working until 8-9pm as standard. Never mind if you’d done all your work in your proper hours, you had to look busy.

I know I’ve got a pretty negative impression of STEM at the moment coloured by my own recent bad experience and I am trying really hard not to extrapolate too much from the one datapoint.

One point I wanted to make but forgot in my ramblings was that when you’re younger the idea of moving around for short-term positions isn’t a problem and can even be seen as an exciting aspect of academia. But as you get older a sense of stability can be desirable or even necessary. Even if you don’t have children, pets, ageing parents and other responsibilities or hobbies can mean that moving every couple of years becomes impractical or at least a massive pain that has to be well worth the effort. Again, I know that this isn’t unique to academia but very few jobs have a demand for such great mobility for so much of the early career. (I’d add it’s also really costly to keep moving, deposits for homes, the cost of moving possession, especially across borders, can mean that people without financial security can be priced out of academia early on).

This is turning into a longer post than I intended and may main reason for writing was to share this blogpost from a friend that highlights another problem of the constant moving - that of making friends.

Ah yes - I was going to post that - I was just reading it on the bus!

She’s right though. It is interesting how once academics (and it probably applies to many professionals?) have settled, in the broadest sense of the word, it can be very difficult to persuade them to move. As you say it requires uprooting whole families & networks by that stage, and you think twice about doing that.