October 26, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
An article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education confirms what those who have studied gender and leadership know from research — and what many women know from personal experience: women need to be able to see themselves in a role before they can succeed in it.
I assert the same is true for people of color and for first generation college graduates.
If people can’t believe at their core that folks like them can do whatever they are setting out to do, that tiny kernel of insecurity can gnaw at their self-confidence. And guess what? They may not be able to do what they fear they can’t. It’s a tacit, self-fulfilling prophecy.
The message to educators in all this is clear: teaching skills and knowledge is not enough. Quality education is identify work and personal development, and we short change our students – undergraduates, graduate students, and executive audiences – when we design programs assuming facts, figures, and models are enough. We do students no service either when we think we know why they don’t succeed or persist.
Look at what the researchers found.
Research from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research in the October issue of the American Sociological Review found that women who begin college intending to become engineers are more likely than men to change their major and choose another career. The interesting gender twist: they do it for lack of confidence, not competence.
Women lack what the researchers call "professional role confidence" — a term that loosely describes the outcome of a complex self-assessment on whether a person feels s/he has the right stuff for success: the core intellectual skills, the right expertise for a given profession, and a fit in interests and values with the expectations of the field’s career path.
Women’s family plans and concerns about their math skills have been traditional explanations for their low representation in engineering. The researchers, however, found otherwise.
Women’s family plans had little bearing on their career planning once they entered engineering training. Surprisingly, men were more likely to leave engineering if they had plans to start a family.
Women’s views of their math abilities were not significant predictors of persistence toward an engineering degree or entrance into the field. "Once students matriculate into this math-intensive field, more complex, profession-specific self-assessments appear to replace math self-assessment as the driving social-psychological reasons for attrition," the researchers concluded.
The authors suggest their findings about professional-role confidence may be relevant in other fields. I know they are. That’s why mentors, role models, and caring sponsors are so important.