A recent analysis by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that there are major leaks in the pipeline as women proceed in to the upper echelons of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic (STEM) domains. Dr. Chad Forbes (University of Delaware) proposes one reason for this is that continuous exposure to stereotype threatening contexts, i.e., stressful performance situations where negative stereotypes about women's math ability are salient, may initiate a biological stress response that enhances encoding and recall of negative emotional memories associated with STEM domains. These memories ultimately facilitate learned STEM aversions to undermine tactics people normally employ to ensure perseverance in challenging domains. With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Forbes and colleagues will conduct four experiments on men and women who are highly identified with STEM domains. Incorporating longitudinal, genotyping, and simultaneous EEG and startle probe methodologies, these studies will assess how subcortical and cortical responses to negative information encountered in stereotype threatening contexts predicts women's memory for negative information (Study 1), STEM aversions (Study 2), and ability to self-enhance in STEM domains (Study 3). Genetic polymorphisms known to influence neural regulatory processes will be assessed as moderators of these relationships. The final study will attempt to counteract women's basic STEM aversions to motivate sustained engagement with STEM domains. Together, these studies will identify key factors that both repel women from STEM domains and promote their retention.
The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields has deleterious ramifications on the nation's economy, academic and corporate diversity, national productivity, innovation and quality of STEM products, services and education, and overall quality of life. Identifying ways to increase the representation of women in STEM fields will have broad impacts on future intervention programs, advancement in science, and prosperity of our nation. By disseminating findings from these studies to hundreds of women STEM majors and public forums, this project will create opportunities to educate these groups about the deleterious consequences of stereotype threat on women's STEM engagement and the dire need to promote their retention in STEM fields. Furthermore, dozens of students, including women and underrepresented minorities, will be trained in cutting-edge neuroscience methodologies and have the opportunity to present findings at national and international conferences. Finally, the project will generate a very large EEG and genetic database. Dr. Forbes will contribute to the big data effort by making the data available to support other coordinated NSF efforts that aim to make use of real data in teaching STEM related courses, developing EEG-based source imaging methods, and enabling participation in discovery science by those who would otherwise have no access to such data.