Scientific work is unfairly perceived by many people as a solitary, even lonely enterprise, concerned with abstracted goals rather than helping others. While some scientific work calls for a quiet room (at the least, noise-cancelling headphones), the reality is that the enterprise as a whole involves plenty of communal aspects, from collaboration and discussions to teaching and mentoring. In new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers from the University of Miami have explored whether, by emphasising its communal goals, science could be made a more attractive career choice, especially to women who are underrepresented in the field.
In a first study, Emily Clark’s team asked a gender-balanced sample of 165 students to read a description of a fictional scientist’s day-to-day activities. For half the participants, the scientist’s tasks were described as being tackled solo (“he looks up relevant past research to consult about the procedure”) whereas other participants read a description modified to emphasise communal behaviours (“he meets some of his lab group in the lab and consults with them about the procedures”).
In a survey that followed, male and female participants exposed to scientific communal behaviours were more likely to agree that entry-level science roles “fulfil goals such as intimacy, working with people, and helping others in general” – showing that the manipulation worked – and these participants expressed more positivity about the idea of pursuing a scientific career themselves. This was true to the same extent whether the scientist was presented as a woman or a man – a surprising result given that people usually see women as having more communal interests, so you’d think a female scientist performing communal activities would have had an additive effect.
However, a second study suggested that science’s communal credentials can be boosted when female scientists are depicted as having stereotypically female interests outside of their lab work. Here, 156 student participants rated their personal interest in communal goals like intimacy and helping others, before reading a description of one of two female scientists. The two characterisations were identical in their work activities but differed in the hobbies they pursued in their free time: one enjoyed more gendered activities like yoga and knitting, the other gender-neutral ones like photography and running.
A subset of participants who read about the more explicitly gendered scientist gave higher ratings of science as communal, and rated science more positively. These were the participants who had said they cared strongly about communal goals – they apparently “read” the characterisation more closely, and made more of the implications.
What does this research mean for what science institutions should do? Firstly, that to frame science as communal, women role models are more of an asset when allowed to be seen as women. This isn’t to advocate that women scientists should feel a burden to act more stereotypically (which would put them in a double bind, given recent findings), but that marketers and communicators should accept that a more three-dimensional account of women scientists is likely to make more of an impact than a nominal use of the occasional female face on a website or a scattering of feminine names throughout some literature. Secondly, that a very straightforward way to send the message about science’s communal nature is simply to demonstrate it in action, ensuring that the interactive experience of scientists – no matter their gender – is visible and accessible.
Clark, E., Fuesting, M., & Diekman, A. (2016). Enhancing interest in science: exemplars as cues to communal affordances of science Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12392
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