Character  &  Context

Powerful and Preferred: Communal STEM Role Models

Image of scientists looking at a test tube
By: Melissa Fuesting
The overwhelming popularity of the female scientist Lego set and the outcry over incompetent computer engineer Barbie show people intuitively understand that the right sort of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) role models are important for increasing women’s interest and representation in STEM. A computer engineer who needs her male friends to program her ideas for her simply will not do, thank you very much. However, this does beg the question of what sort of STEM role model will increase young women’s interest in STEM. 
Past work points to STEM role models that fulfill communal goals in their work – that is, those that work with or help others. Work currently under review with my colleagues Emily Clark and Amanda Diekman furthermore suggests that these other-oriented role models are beneficial regardless of whether they are female or male. Communal STEM role models may be so effective because STEM fields in comparison to others are often stereotyped as providing fewer opportunities to work with and help others. Picture the quintessential lone scientist (often with crazy hair), and you may have a general (though somewhat exaggerated) idea of how many people view science and STEM careers. Understandably, many people don't want to spend the majority of their time working alone. People, and especially women, generally value working with and helping others. Beliefs that STEM careers allow opportunities to work with and help others thus boost STEM attitudes and motivation, outcomes that are important for recruiting and keeping women in STEM. 
We know from past work that collaborative qualities in STEM role models can have positive effects. It is still unclear whether people, especially those already in or on their way towards a STEM career, value or search for these qualities in their STEM role models. STEM is stereotyped as involving more focus on achievement and success than altruism and collaboration. People therefore may be less likely to value the other-oriented traits and behaviors in STEM role models that could in turn improve their attitudes toward STEM careers.  To investigate, Amanda Diekman and I asked STEM majors or workers/employees about the importance of achievement behaviors and other-oriented behaviors in their STEM role models, as well as their own value of these goals. Regardless of stereotypes about STEM, both women and men valued other-oriented behaviors in their STEM role models over success and achievement behaviors. Furthermore, the more people valued other-oriented goals, the more they valued these behaviors in their STEM role models. People who may most want a communal career also placed the highest importance on the sort of behaviors in a STEM role model that would help disprove the harmful stereotype that STEM careers do not allow one to work with or help others. 
It is promising that people in STEM place high importance on other-oriented traits in their STEM role models; however, we also wanted to investigate whether STEM majors prefer to work with these other-oriented role models, and whether they would prefer to work with a role model of their own gender. In another study, we described two STEM role models that demonstrated similar levels of productivity and success; one achieved this degree of success mostly alone, and the other achieved this success through high amounts of collaboration. Participants read about these role models described as either men or women.  We then asked STEM majors how much they would like to get involved in the role models’ labs. Both male and female participants overwhelmingly preferred to get involved with the collaborative role model over the “solo” role model. Furthermore, people were not more willing to get involved with a matched-gender role model; women and men were equally willing to get involved with the collaborative role model’s research team regardless of whether the role model was a man or a woman. 
Female STEM role models are undoubtedly important to increasing women’s representation in STEM by demonstrating that women can successfully navigate gender discrimination and other challenges common in STEM. However, there are also at present more men than women in STEM. Shifting focus to also consider the power of other-oriented role models (regardless of their gender) may help prevent placing an undue burden of mentorship on our current women in STEM. Both women and men placed an importance on having a STEM role model that worked with and helped others.  Furthermore, both men and women preferred to work with the sort of collaborative STEM research mentors that could reinforce beliefs important to STEM interest. Of particular note was that women and men were no more or less willing to work with a STEM research mentor of their own gender. Taken in light of past work, these studies suggest that other-oriented people in STEM, and not just women in STEM, may serve as effective STEM role models to both women and men, and therefore recruit more talented individuals, including women, into STEM. 
Melissa Fuesting earned her B.A. in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and is now a 2nd year doctoral student in Miami University’s Department of Psychology. Her research focuses on sources of STEM communal affordances (i.e. perceptions of the degree to which STEM careers fulfill communal goals) and how they in turn affect STEM interest. You can contact her at or check out her CV (and her cool hat) here
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