The objective of this research is to examine the impact of threatening intellectual environments on the academic success, major persistence, and psychological well-being of college women in biomedical disciplines. The project is relevant to NIGMS's mission to broaden participation of diverse groups in the scientific workforce. Several psychological and behavioral barriers to women's participation in science exist and this research aims to discover some of these barriers. Threatening intellectual environments, whether created by contextual cues, stereotype threat, or personality factors, negatively affect the academic success and retention of women in biomedical fields. The model of threatening intellectual environments posits that environmental cues highlighting a stigmatized status (i.e., gender) lead to a chain of psychological events that result in lower academic performance and persistence in gender non- traditional domains (e.g., STEM fields). These events include physiological threat responses, reduction in working memory capacity, and reduced motivation and task persistence. The model predicts that cognitive, affective, motivational, and physiological reactions to threatening environmental cues differ by characteristics of the person. Thus there are several pathways through which women can be encouraged or discouraged from pursing an education and career in biomedical fields. To test the theoretical model, three cohorts of incoming and transfer biomedical students will be studied, each over a two-year period. A sample of women biomedical majors and their male counterparts will complete a series of six questionnaires measuring changes in key theoretical variables over time. The women will complete an experiment in which stereotype threat is manipulated and test performance, working memory capacity, task persistence, and physiological arousal are measured. The women will later complete two in-depth telephone interviews to allow for deeper examination of the effects of environmental cues on educational and psychological outcomes. In Year 2, the female participants will complete an experiment in which they experience a safe or threatening environment. Their task performance and physiological arousal will be assessed. It is predicted that women who experience threatening intellectual environments, whether in the classroom or laboratory, will show lower academic performance, greater threat related cognitive, affective, and physiological responses, and be at greater risk for leaving the major. The longer term project goals are to better understand why women do not enter or leave biomedical fields so that effective interventions can be developed.
This research is relevant to public health by examining psychological and behavioral factors that prevent women from entering and succeeding in biomedical careers. NIGMS seeks to broaden participation of diverse groups in the scientific workforce, yet psychological and educational barriers to their participation exist. This research will inform interventions to remedy these barriers and help diversify the workforce, which helps advance science and public health.