Conversation Content and Women in STEM

By: Jacqueline Jung

It is no secret that women are underrepresented in academia, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. When scanning the names of a faculty roster for STEM departments, it is not uncommon to find just one or two female faculty members. For women, this imbalance negatively impacts their day-to-day work experience. Previous literature has established that women in STEM tend to feel dissatisfied with their jobs (Robertson & Bean, 1998; Settles, Cortina, Malley, & Stewart, 2006; Settles, Cortina, Stewart, & Malley, 2007; Singh, Mishra, & Kim, 1998). A study by Holleran et al. (2011) sought to supplement STEM women’s self-reported feelings of disengagement with behavioral data, by recording workplace conversations amongst STEM faculty. Conversations between forty-five male and female colleagues at a major research university in the U.S. were recorded for three consecutive work days, and the audio files were later coded for either research or socializing conversations. Those discussions were then related to measures of job disengagement.

Research productivity is considered by many to be the most important factor in faculty performance for academia. To thrive in one’s role as a researcher, faculty members need a supportive network. Therefore, research conversations with colleagues (e.g. “How is that grant coming?”) can provide that support through validation and encouragement. Social conversations, while not directly work-related, also play an important role in the workplace. Social conversations have been linked to greater job satisfaction (Winstead, Derlega, Montgomery, & Pilkington, 1995) and form the basis of networking.

The researchers found that both men and women were less likely to discuss research in conversations with women colleagues. Although men reported higher levels of work engagement as they had more research conversations, women reported being less engaged the more their conversations were about research. The authors suggest this may be because STEM-associated interactions with male colleagues cue social identity threat. As for social conversations, women report more engagement as they socialized with male colleagues. Interestingly, men exhibited no relationship between social conversations engagement.

These findings point to the unique challenges women face in STEM disciplines, where even their daily interactions relate to feelings of work engagement. To create inclusive workplace environments in STEM, faculty should encourage conversations amongst colleagues that value and support women’s contributions to the organization and field.

References

Holleran, S. E., Whitehead, J., Schmader, T., & Mehl, Matthias 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.

Lyness, K. S., & Thompson, D. E. (2000). Climbing the corporate ladder: Do female and male executives follow the same route? Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 86-101.

Robertson, L. J., & Bean, J. P. (1998). Women faculty in family and consumer sciences: Influences on job satisfaction. Family and Consumer Science Research Journal, 27, 167-193.

Settles, I. H., Cortina, L. M., Malley, J., & Stewart, A. J. (2006). The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 47-58.

Singh, S. N., Mishra, S., & Kim, D. (1998). Research-related burnout among faculty in higher-education. Psychological Reports, 83, 463-473.

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