When Women Thrive in Male-Dominated Workplaces
Although women are entering careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at higher rates than ever, a large number of women leave STEM because they do not feel fully accepted in these male-dominated workplaces. But new research exploring the day-to-day interactions of men and women in STEM workplaces finds that everyday conversations at work, especially with male colleagues, are important making women in STEM feel included.
When researchers ask why women are underrepresented in STEM, they often focus on the fact that gender stereotypes might lower women’s interest and performance in math and science. However, there has been less attention given to the experiences of women who have already established a career in STEM. Our research team set out to get a clearer understanding of the day-to-day social experiences of women working in these fields.
Women in male-dominated workplaces sometimes report instances of overt sexism, harassment, and isolation, but those kinds of problems were not our focus. Our interest was in subtle, everyday experiences that might make women feel they are evaluated through the lens of their gender, a phenomenon known as social identity threat. Feeling evaluated based on a negative gender stereotype may be a persistent psychological worry, unique to women, that contributes to job burnout. But gender-inclusive workplaces should foster more respectful relationships between men and women that might make women feel accepted and reduce burnout. Although studies suggest that interactions with subtly sexist men can undermine women’s job performance, ours was the first research to examine how the interpersonal context contributes to women’s negative experiences in STEM work settings.
We began by conducting a small study with academic scientists to examine how interactions between men and women predicted feelings of disengagement. We used the Electronically Activated Recorder, an audio recording device that is programmed to automatically turn itself on and off, to capture snippets of these scientists’ conversations at work. This research revealed a sensible pattern for male scientists: the more time male scientists spent talking about research with their colleagues, the more engaged they reported feeling about their work and careers.
But the results for female scientists were paradoxical: the more time women spent talking about research with male colleagues, the less engaged they were with their career. But talking to female colleagues didn’t predict lower women’s job engagement. So, something about talking to male colleagues had a negative effect on women that talking to female colleagues did not. This pattern led us to consider whether women might be experiencing social identity threat during their conversations with men at work.
To examine this question, we recruited professional engineers and graduate students in STEM fields and surveyed their interpersonal experiences to get a snapshot of their work life. Each day for 10 days, these research participants answered questions about how accepted and respected they felt during conversations at work. They also completed measures of social identity threat and job burnout. We found that women reported feeling evaluated on the basis of their gender on days when they did not feel completely respected during their conversations with male colleagues. And these days on which they felt more social identity threat were also days when they felt more mentally exhausted and burned out. Importantly, these effects were found only for women’s conversations with male colleagues and when discussing topics related to work; talking with male colleagues about social topics did not produce social identity threat or burnout.
To be clear, these effects appeared to be due to women not feeling fully respected and supported, not to the presence of overt hostility. These findings are consistent with the idea that some interactions in STEM workplaces make women feel devalued on the basis of their gender. On a more positive note, when women feel fully respected by their male colleagues, they don’t feel negatively judged based their gender or experience these negative effects.
This research demonstrates that their day-to-day interpersonal context affects women’s psychological well-being in STEM fields. When conversations with men show acceptance and respect, women don’t feel negatively evaluated based on their gender and experience less burnout. In follow-up research, we found that women who reported working in a company with gender-inclusive policies and practices had more positive interpersonal interactions and experienced fewer concerns about negative gender-based evaluations.
These findings highlight the importance of organizational cultures with positive interpersonal norms between men and women and might apply to a variety of workplace contexts. Establishing an accepting and respectful workplace climate can be difficult, and in our ongoing work as part of the Engendering Success in STEM project (http://successinstem.ca/), we are testing various approaches to foster women’s inclusion and success in STEM.
For Further Reading
Hall, W., Schmader, T., & Croft, E. (2015). Engineering exchanges: Daily social identity threat predicts burnout among female engineers. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(5), 528-534.
Hall, W., Schmader, T., Aday, A., & Croft, E. (2019). Decoding the dynamics of social identity threat in the workplace: a within-person analysis of women’s and men’s interactions in STEM. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(4), 542-552.
Hall, W., Schmader, T., Aday, A., Inness, M., & Croft, E. (2019). Climate control: The relationship between social identity threat and cues to an identity-safe culture. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115(3), 446.
Holleran, S. E., Whitehead, J., Schmader, T., & Mehl, M. R. (2011). Talking shop and shooting the breeze: A study of workplace conversation and job disengagement among STEM faculty. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(1), 65-71.
The Engendering Success in STEM project: http://successinstem.ca/
William Hall is an Assistant Professor at Brock University, St. Catharines, Canada. Toni Schmader is a Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columba, Vancouver, Canada.